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Justin Trudeau contends with the uncertainty of Canada’s vaccine supply

In his last two appearances before reporters, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asserted that the unpredictable messiness of vaccinating the globe against a novel coronavirus should have been expected. 

“We knew that there would be some hurdles along the way with unpredictability and increased demand for production,” the prime minister said Tuesday.

On Friday, he explained that “the numbers on vaccine arrivals in this new process where industrial processes are being stood up around the world from scratch for these vaccines — we always expected them to fluctuate a little bit.”

If the Trudeau government’s move to purchase doses in advance from seven different suppliers was supposed to minimize the risk inherent to any one option, it apparently couldn’t eliminate all potential for trouble; including production interruptions for Moderna and Pfizer and the threat of export controls by the European Union.

But if that uncertainty was foreseeable — if a certain lack of control over events was inevitable — it likely should have been a greater point of emphasis from the beginning. For the government’s sake, it might have prepared Canadians for the interruptions that the Trudeau government has been scrambling to account for over the last week. For the country’s sake, it might have advanced the conversation about what, if anything, the government could have done differently to counter the increasingly obvious challenges of international vaccine procurement.

For now, Trudeau promises that his goal remains the same; that the two leading manufacturers will produce and deliver enough doses of a vaccine over the next eight months to vaccinate every Canadian that wants to be vaccinated against COVID-19. And, if he and the country are lucky, this will be the last of the major disruptions. 

But his reassurances are challenged by both the demonstrated uncertainty of the global supply chain and competing assertions that Canada should somehow be doing better.

“Canadians deserve certainty and a plan,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said in a statement issued on Tuesday. “Canadians should know when things are going to get better.”

Opposition parties unimpressed

On Tuesday, Trudeau came bearing the promise of domestic vaccine production, at least eventually. The news that Noravax will be able to produce vaccines at a Montreal facility by year’s end — and that the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization will eventually be able to produce 40 million doses annually — is presumably a hedge against further disruptions. It also might help set Canada up to deal with future needs to either vaccinate against variants of the COVID-19 virus or deal with the next pandemic. But it doesn’t do anything to address the immediate need.

The opposition parties were, perhaps foreseeably, unimpressed — both the Conservatives and New Democrats quickly asserted on Tuesday that the Liberal government should have negotiated for domestic production much earlier. 

“This should have been negotiated — Day 1,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh tweeted.

Negotiations necessarily involve more than one party, of course. That doesn’t absolve either party of responsibility for failing to find an agreement, but it does mean more investigation is needed to understand why a desired result wasn’t achieved. According to the Canadian Press, the federal government and the National Research Council have been trying to negotiate for domestic manufacturing with all the leading vaccine producers for months, but none had agreed until Noravax.

O’Toole vs Trudeau

Dr. Joel Lexchin, an emergency department physician and an associate professor at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on pharmaceutical policy, told the House of Commons health committee this week that, “Canada had warnings about the need for domestic vaccine manufacturing as a result of SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009 but didn’t heed those warnings.” 

That’s the long view. For the Trudeau government, the question is whether there was obviously something different that they should have done in the last 12 months to ensure faster, more-plentiful and better-guaranteed access to a vaccine — and whether the decisions they took were defensibly grounded in sound logic and expertise. If parliamentary committees were more generally adept at getting to definitive answers, one might expect the health committee’s hearings to help clarify such matters.

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In this multiple-exposed image Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, left, asks a question and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers during question period in the House of Commons last fall. O’Toole is continuing to press Trudeau over Canada’s pace of vaccine rollout. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Opposite Trudeau’s concession to uncertainty, O’Toole continues to assert a desire to know more about what the future holds. 

Whatever plan the Liberals could present to lay out exactly how many doses they expect to arrive in Canada each week between now and September, it’s now clear those numbers would be subject to change — if a factory in Belgium catches a cold, a whole supply chain can get sick. And maybe no one really knows when “normal” will return. But O’Toole is no doubt speaking to a widespread public desire for this to all be over as quickly as possible — and his critical view of the Trudeau government is aided by cold, hard math.

Whatever this moment lacks in certainty or control (or clear alternatives), it has an abundance of data about how well each and every country is doing to vaccinate its citizens. 

Those global rankings might require context. Israel is reportedly leading the world because of the terms it was willing to negotiate and its own geographic and logistical advantages. The United States and the United Kingdom have access to domestic manufacturing of the current vaccines. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Serbia are using vaccines from China and Russia that have not been approved for use in Canada. The Seychelles and Malta are tiny countries.

But even after the league leaders, there was still a gap on Tuesday between ninth-place Denmark (with 4.66 doses administered per 100 people) and 29th-place Canada (2.58 doses per 100 people). Canada is currently running behind most European countries — which purchased their vaccines as a bloc — though is still ahead of France. (Canada is actually on par with Belgium, where Canada’s doses of the Pfizer vaccine are being manufactured).

Maybe that gap will narrow. Maybe it won’t amount to a huge difference between when Denmark reaches herd immunity and when Canada does. But there is no doubt some segment of the Canadian public would like to imagine that this country should be much nearer to the top. And the bigger the gap, the harder it will be for the Trudeau government to explain away.

Uncertainty and a lack of control might be facts of Canadian life at the moment. But those facts will become only more unacceptable if Canadians seem to suffer disproportionately for them.

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