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Vaccine Delays Spell Political Problems for Canada's Trudeau

FILE - In this photo provided by Canada's Department of National Defence, shipments of initial doses of COVID-19 vaccines are unloaded, late Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Canada.
FILE - In this photo provided by Canada's Department of National Defence, shipments of initial doses of COVID-19 vaccines are unloaded, late Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Canada.

As the United States moves rapidly to vaccinate senior citizens and other vulnerable Americans against the coronavirus, older Canadians are watching enviously, aware that most of them are unlikely to receive their own shots until sometime this summer.

The delay is beginning to cause political problems for the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which had received high marks earlier in the pandemic for its efforts to contain the pandemic, keeping infection rates much lower than those in their southern neighbor.

According to Our World in Data, a research website used by U.S. media and universities, Canada had vaccinated 4.2% of its population as of February 24. While better than many countries where vaccinations have barely begun, that lags behind other developed countries like Germany at 6.4% and Norway at 7.3% and is far behind the U.S. rate, where almost 20% of the population has now been vaccinated.

Canada’s early success against the virus was attributed to its aggressive approach to promoting mask wearing, social distancing and other preventive measures, in sharp contrast to the often-dismissive attitude adopted by then U.S. President Donald Trump.

But that same rejection of the Trumpian approach appears to have carried the seeds of Canada’s current problems. Experts say a reluctance to rely on the United States for its vaccine needs led the Ottawa government to look to vaccines manufactured in Europe.

Canada eventually contracted with seven vaccine manufacturers, seeking to spread its risk as widely as possible. But several of those vaccines are still not available while vaccine maker Pfizer Inc. unexpectedly undertook modifications to a plant in Belgium, seriously delaying deliveries to customers including Canada.

That left Trudeau in the awkward position of having to ask U.S. President Joe Biden, during an introductory virtual meeting this week, for permission to purchase millions of doses from a Pfizer manufacturing facility in the U.S. border state of Michigan.

However White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters afterwards, it is too soon for the United States to entertain the Canadian request because “our focus right now is getting shots in arms at home.”

None of that is playing well in Canada, where politicians and medical experts alike are demanding to know more about the arrangements the government has made to purchase vaccines.

“Canadians who have spent the last eleven months under lockdown and staying home from work to stop the spread of COVID-19 need to know when they’ll get vaccinated,” said Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party.

“Under Justin Trudeau, Canada is falling behind other countries in vaccination efforts while his government fails to roll out a vaccination plan for Canadians.”

Dr. Joel Lexchin, a professor in the School of Health Policy and Management at York University, said in an interview that the government has failed to tell the public enough about the terms of its vaccine contracts and when the vaccines will be delivered.

“How much are we paying per dose? Is our delivery being delayed because other countries are paying more than we are? Are there penalties to the companies if they don’t follow through with the delivery timetable?” asked Lexchin, a regularly featured expert at the progressive Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.

He said the Trudeau government “has chosen not to make any of the details of the contracts available. Those factors are being kept secret from Canadians in terms of us understanding what is going on with vaccination.”

Other experts say Canada relied too much on vaccines and therapeutics developed in other countries instead of moving quickly to develop its own resources.

“While counterpart countries were immediately investing billions in support for product development, manufacturing capacity, and supporting advance purchase agreements, Canada offered up minimal support despite viable vaccine candidates here in Canada," said Grant Perry, who worked with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline on the H1N1 pandemic response.

Perry also condemned what he says is “antipathy” from the Trudeau government toward the pharmaceutical industry, a view shared by other conservative critics of the Liberal Party administration.

“Canada's poorer intellectual rights protection and its health technology assessment and price negotiation processes make this country a less attractive marketplace than some other nations,” said Nigel Rawson, a senior fellow at the pro-market Fraser Institute think tank.

Asked to respond to the criticism, a Trudeau spokesperson referred VOA to the prime minister’s recent press conferences, where he has spoken at length about his conversations with leaders at Pfizer and Moderna, the first two companies to provide vaccines to Canada.

As for the accusations about transparency, the Trudeau administration insists it is committed to full transparency but also is concerned about limiting the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories that could undermine public trust in the vaccines.