Despite supply issues, Canada ‘doing pretty good’ on vaccine roll out: professor

If Dr. Noni MacDonald were to grade the federal government on its COVID-19 vaccine roll-out so far, she would offer a “solid B, if not a B-plus.”

“Given what we have to deal with … our provincial/territorial responsibility for health [and] our relatively small population for our huge geography, I think we’re doing pretty good,” said MacDonald.

She is the pediatrics professor at Dalhousie University’s School of Medicine and a founding member of the World Health Organization’s global advisory committee on vaccine safety.

With vaccine shipments from both Pfizer and Moderna delayed in recent weeks, the Trudeau government has faced criticism for its procurement and distribution process.

Pfizer didn’t ship vaccine vials to Canada this past week, citing delays as it retools production of its COVID-19 vaccine in Belgium. Moderna announced Friday it expects to ship 20 to 25 per cent less product than scheduled through the month of February. European countries have also faced delays receiving vaccines from both companies.

Data collated by the University of Oxford-based publication Our World in Data now puts Canada behind roughly two dozen countries in terms of the number of vaccination doses administered per 100 people. Canada lags behind countries including Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as Bahrain and Serbia.

Just over 950,000 doses have been administered across Canada as of Jan. 30., according to CBC’s vaccine tracker.

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For Conservative and Opposition leader Erin O’Toole, the delays signal a need for greater clarity on the federal government’s procurement plan and contracts.

“We need transparency on when people can expect to be vaccinated, which groups will be vaccinated first, how quickly we can get them out,” he told Power and Politics host Vassy Kapelos. 

Speaking on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that fluctuations in vaccine shipments are to be expected as global production builds, and that both Pfizer and Moderna will ship a total of six million doses by the end of March.

Geography and bureaucracy

Delays and a short supply of COVID-19 vaccines, MacDonald says, only tell part of the story of why Canada lags behind other countries.

The physical size of this country makes delivering vaccines to all regions a challenge. While getting vaccines to Hamilton from Toronto — a 70 km drive — is simple, transporting them to rural parts of the country is less straightforward.

“In Nova Scotia where I live, we have just under a million [in] population. We have one very, very big urban centre [and] one moderately big urban centre, but that only has about half the population of the province,” she told Cross Country Checkup.

The rest of the population, she says, is scattered across a large area, making vaccine delivery a challenge.

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Israel and the United Kingdom, which top the global list of vaccine doses given, are a fraction of the size and more densely populated, making it easier to deliver and administer shots, MacDonald argues.

Provincial and territorial responsibility for health care requiring each jurisdiction to develop its own plan, as well as the lack of a national patient data system to track those who have received the shot or are most at risk, are also responsible for some of the hiccups.

“The plan that’s going to work in P.E.I. is not going to work in Ontario,” said MacDonald, adding that both Israel and the U.K. have one integrated health system responsible for their campaigns.

On par with France, Germany

MacDonald believes that compared to other countries and jurisdictions, Canada has made smart decisions in its vaccine roll out, particularly when it comes to assessing who is eligible.

Provinces and territories have prioritized those most at risk to be among the first vaccinated, typically focusing on age, occupation and health status.

And despite the country’s vast geography, Canada is on par with smaller countries like Germany, Sweden and France. “You’d think they’d be doing better than we are,” MacDonald said.

Going forward, the Dalhousie professor believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to close some gaps when it comes to who oversees health care.

“I actually think this has shown us how important public health and immunization are to the well-being of our country,” she said. 

“Perhaps there needs to be federal legislation that says that immunization should be co-ordinated nationally and public health should be co-ordinated nationally.” 


Written by Jason Vermes with files from Collins Maina.

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