The federal government laid out preliminary details for Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout Thursday, saying logistics and infrastructure will be put in place this month in preparation for the first doses to likely be available in January.
The government expects several vaccines will be approved early next year but supply will initially be limited to about three million people. Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Thursday that priority will be given to groups that will most benefit from an earlier vaccine, while reducing the spread of the virus.
“In a country as geographically large and diverse as ours we are facing some logistical complexities,” he said, including reaching remote communities and coordinating between various levels of government.
Pfizer’s vaccine is expected to start being delivered first in January, and will be sent by the manufacturer to pre-determined points in each province. Health Canada officials said Thursday the Pfizer approval is imminent with just a few documents left to receive from the company, including which lots of vaccine Canada will get. Njoo said Thursday he fully expects the decision to be a yes.
On Wednesday, the United Kingdom became the first, and so far only, country to approve Pfizer’s vaccine. The United States is expected to follow on Dec. 10.
Njoo said the National Advisory Committee on Immunization will release more details in the coming days about who will be included in the initial “priority groups” to receive the first shots.
“Although the initial supply will be limited I want to be clear there will be enough vaccines for every Canadian,” Njoo said.
The Canadian Armed Forces received formal orders last week to start planning for the distribution of COVID−19 vaccines. Federal and provincial governments will stage a dress rehearsal on Dec. 7 to test the complex plan to get vaccines distributed to every corner of Canada.
Maj. Gen. Dany Fortin, who was named last week to lead the Canadian military’s role in the vaccine distribution process, says the dry run is intended to get everyone involved comfortable with the intense requirements of distributing a vaccine that has to be kept below −70 C at all times.
“We are hard at it in the next couple of weeks to ensure that we are ready,” said Fortin. “I kind of like the idea of being ready before the Christmas time−frame so we are certain to be ready when it comes in January.”
Fortin said the speed, scope, and scale of the plan makes it unique in the country’s history, and holding simulation tests will ensure critical capability gaps are filled and any risks are mitigated.
Fortin noted that as vaccines arrive in Canada they may be distributed differently, depending on their storage requirements. The first vaccines to arrive, known as “track one,” will likely be from Pfizer and Moderna but will have different distribution plans. For example, Moderna’s vaccine will first be shipped to a central hub in Canada and from there, distributed to communities across the country. But the Pfizer vaccine will be sent directly to the communities, due to specific temperature control requirements.
A planning directive issued last week by chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance noted the possibility of having to pick up COVID−19 vaccine doses from the United States and Europe on short notice, and outlined concerns the military will be asked to help with distribution while also responding to floods and other emergencies.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has established a national operations centre to run the vaccine distribution but the Canadian Armed Forces will play a significant role under what Vance’s order calls Operation Vector.
The military could be called upon to fly doses on short order from Europe, the U.S. or elsewhere, and to help get them to remote, northern and coastal communities.
Military planners are also preparing to have troops work at vaccine−storage facilities and deliver freezers and other medical supplies to various regions. But the military remains as much in the dark as everyone else about the specific timing for the doses to start arriving.
The Conservatives put forward a motion in the House of Commons Thursday that called on the Liberals to present specific details on their vaccine rollout strategy by Dec. 16. Among other things, the Tories want to know how each type of vaccine will be delivered, by when, and to whom.
Meanwhile, thousands of Canadians are currently backing a petition before the House of Commons that raises doubts about the safety of vaccines, suggesting among other things they are being rushed without appropriate safeguards and that the program amounts to “human experimentation.”
O’Toole said the petition speaks to Canadians’ fears and their need for more information from the government.
“A plan will actually help provide details and help educate Canadians on the research and approvals of vaccines, how they’ll be stored so that can be used effectively, how they can be rolled out first to the most vulnerable, and then to other Canadians,” he said.
“This is why information is a tool just as important as rapid tests and vaccines.”
With files from The Canadian Press