Canada ‘not at the back of the line’ for COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna chairman says

The head of a U.S. biotechnology company that is developing one of the most promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates says Canada is not far behind other countries when it comes to receiving doses of its vaccine.

“Canada is not at the back of the line,” Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna, told CBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton on Sunday.

Afeyan said because Canada was among the first countries to make a pre-order with Moderna, the country is guaranteed to receive a certain portion of the company’s initial batch of doses — as long as the vaccine proves safe and effective and is given regulatory approval.

“The people who were willing to move early on with even less proof of the efficacy have assured the amount of supply they were willing to sign up to,” Afeyan said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live

“Nothing that happened subsequently can affect that.”

The Canadian government secured an agreement on Aug. 5 with Moderna for 20 million doses of its mRNA vaccine, with the option to procure an additional 36 million doses. It’s one of seven vaccine makers Canada currently has agreements with.

Moderna’s vaccine is currently in Stage 3 clinical trials and preliminary data released two weeks ago showed it appears to be 94.5 per cent effective.

Despite that promising news, the Liberal government came under intense pressure this week to lay out a timeline for when Canadians will begin receiving an inoculation as countries like the U.S., U.K. and Germany have all announced plans to begin vaccinating their populations in December. 

Opposition politicians and some premiers argued Canada was falling behind other countries in its planning after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians would have to wait to get vaccinated because the first doses of any vaccine will go to people in the countries where the vaccines are being manufactured.

Federal officials said on Thursday that if all goes well as many as three million Canadians — mainly those in “high-priority groups” — could be vaccinated in early 2021.

WATCH | Federal government pressured on when Canadians will get COVID-19 vaccine

As other countries give timelines, the Trudeau government faces mounting questions about when Canadians will get a COVID-19 vaccine. But the complex task of delivering doses depends on factors still up in the air. 2:00

Regulatory approval pending

Moderna is in the process of applying for emergency-use authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Once the company obtains that authorization, Afeyan said it will begin shipping doses to countries that have made pre-orders, including Canada.

Afeyan said he expects to start shipping the vaccine to Canada in the first quarter of 2021 and the quantity of shipments should increase through the second quarter and throughout the rest of the year.

The company expects to be able to produce a total of 20 million doses by the end of 2020 and between 500 million and 1 billion doses throughout 2021.

Moderna submitted early safety and pre-clinical data from Phase 1 and 2 trials with Health Canada last month as part of the regulator’s rolling regulatory review process. Health Canada must approve any COVID-19 vaccine before it can be distributed to Canadians.

Experts say Moderna’s vaccine — which requires two shots taken 28 days apart — will be relatively easy to store and distribute because the vaccine can remain stable at normal fridge temperatures of 2 C to 8 C for 30 days. By contrast, another leading candidate manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer must be shipped and stored at -70 C.

WATCH | Health Minister on how the federal government should address vaccine hesitancy:

Health Minister Patty Hadju says some hesitancy around a new vaccine is ‘normal’ and stresses the value of regulatory independence. 10:42

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said it’s difficult to nail down a delivery date at the moment for any of the leading vaccine candidates because of the long list of uncertainties stemming from unfinished clinical trials, ongoing regulatory reviews, and manufacturing and logistical challenges related to distribution.

“We’re all anxious to get out of this mess as a world, but certainly as a country as well,” Hajdu said.

“As Canada’s health minister, I’m staying focused on Canadians and on our own process, making sure our delivery plans are well laid out and that we have what we need in terms of being able to deliver on the variety of different kinds of vaccines.”

Hajdu added that her top priority is ensuring that Health Canada has what it needs to make sure the regulatory process proceeds smoothly so that any vaccines that are approved are safe and effective.

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