A day after the country’s largest province said it would suspend the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, the federal government confirmed today that tens of thousands more doses of this product will arrive next week.
Canada will receive 655,000 more doses from COVAX, the global vaccine sharing alliance — the first new shipment of this product since the U.S. provided a loan of some 1.5 million doses in early April.
But with AstraZeneca vaccinations on pause indefinitely in some provinces, the purpose of this sizeable delivery is in question.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Wednesday Canada is “stealing” from the developing world by procuring shots from COVAX, an initiative primarily designed to help low- and middle-income countries get access to these life-saving products.
“The only way the prime minister made his so-called targets was by stealing from COVAX, stealing from the developing world that Canada usually helps,” he said.
Fewer than 400,000 of the 20 million doses delivered to Canada so far have come from COVAX.
“How much longer will this pandemic be in Canada because of this prime minister’s failure to secure vaccines earlier?” O’Toole said.
In response, Trudeau said Canada now ranks among the top countries in the world in terms of the number of vaccine doses administered.
“We will continue to deliver for Canadians,” he said, adding Canadians can expect a “one-dose summer” with enough shots on hand to vaccinate everyone with at least one dose by the end of June.
Canada’s last batch of shots from COVAX came from a facility in South Korea. A spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand couldn’t say whether these new shots were manufactured at that same plant.
A site in the U.S. that also was producing AstraZeneca shots has been shut down by American officials because workers there contaminated some 15 millions of doses of the vaccine last month.
On Tuesday, Ontario put a stop to all first-dose AstraZeneca appointments, citing the risk of developing a rare but serious condition called vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT).
While new shipments are to arrive next week, Ontario’s Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province won’t use them for second shots, at least for now. The province’s existing supply of some 50,000 AstraZeneca shots will also sit in storage until there’s more guidance from experts, Elliott said.
“We are waiting for a determination by Health Canada as well as NACI on the situation with respect to VITT and the safety overall,” Elliott said, referring to the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.
“We need to know more before we deal with any more doses of AstraZeneca being put into arms.”
Other provinces, including Alberta, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, have also stopped using the product. Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, said today that the province would halt appointments “out of an abundance of caution,” with VITT rates rising across the country.
Pressed by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner on what AstraZeneca recipients should do about a second shot, Trudeau — who got a dose of this product in April — said he spoke to his family doctor and he was told it would be safe for him to get that shot again.
Trudeau also cautioned that he’s not an expert and Canadians should take direction from health authorities.
“I don’t believe that politicians should be delivering health advice,” Trudeau told Rempel Garner. “People are looking at different options around the world. We will have more data. We will update people on the recommended path forward.”
WATCH: Conservative MP asks Trudeau if he will get AstraZeneca as his second shot
Earlier this month, NACI said viral vector shots like those offered by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are not the “preferred” vaccines because they could lead to VITT, a blood clot in the brain that has proven deadly for some patients. Twelve VITT cases have been reported in Canada so far and three people have died.
In announcing its suspension, Ontario said it now believes the incident rate of VITT is roughly 1 in 60,000 shots administered — a rate that is much higher than numbers previously cited by Health Canada.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has said Canada is following the “evolving science” on this product.
U.K. studies ‘mismatched’ doses
But at a press conference on Tuesday, Tam said Canada would continue to procure enough AstraZeneca shots to offer a second dose to those who’ve already been vaccinated with the product.
Early data from the United Kingdom suggest the risk of VITT after second doses of AstraZeneca is likely lower than the risk after first doses.
Tam said other options could be made available to Canadians based on the results of an ongoing U.K. study.
Oxford University is studying a “mismatched” vaccine regimen by testing the results of giving one dose of AstraZeneca followed by a Pfizer booster shot.
While the trial data have not yet been released, some scientists have suggested such a mix could produce a stronger immune response than two doses of the same product.
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