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John Ivison: Confused about Canada's vaccine rollout? You should be


Confused about Canada’s vaccine rollout? If you listen to our federal ministers, you might be.

Not only is there dissonance between Ottawa and the provinces, the procurement minister isn’t even consistent with her own talking points.

On Friday, Anita Anand said the federal government anticipates having vaccines in place for all Canadians by the end of September, based on the assumption that additional vaccines will be approved by Health Canada, to augment the Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech vaccines already being injected into people’s arms.

On Sunday on CBC, she said Canada does not need to approve additional vaccines to meet the goal of inoculating everyone who wants a shot by the end of September.

That kind of disparity smells like politics, particularly following a report in the Hill Times that Justin Trudeau told the party’s national board of directors that it “looks like” we’re going to have a spring election.

Canada is on course to receive a combined 60 million doses of Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccine within the September timeline. Since both require two shots, that should just be about enough to inoculate the whole population.

But two more vaccines – produced by Johnson and Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca – are currently being reviewed by Health Canada.

In total, Canada has contracts for up to 398 million doses from eight different producers. Some might not be approved in time, but the addition of the vaccines under review would double the amount available to the federal government.

Despite protestations to the contrary, there are political ramifications in all of this. The Liberals look invulnerable at the present time. But if vaccine dried up, all bets are off.

Could it be that the minister was urged to lower expectations over vaccine rollout, in order that the government might exceed them, if and when AstraZeneca and J&J are approved by Health Canada?

Government insiders downplay such cynical thinking, protesting they are far more focused on fighting the pandemic than on politics. “The best thing for a minority government is to govern from a position of strength, ready to go at any time,” said one official.

But the practical implication of Anand’s course correction is that the bulk of the population may not have to wait until the third quarter to be vaccinated.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, who is coordinating the logistical rollout for the federal government, said on Friday that the supply of vaccine will be “limited and steady” through March, by which time six million doses will have been received (enough to inoculate three million Canadians). The plan is to vaccinate a further 13 million in the second quarter and 20 million in Q3. Presumably, if you add twice as much vaccine, the bulk of which requires just one shot, that timetable will be compressed.

Clearly, there is a great deal of uncertainty in such a complex rollout – from production capacity to regulatory approval.

The best guess the newly created vaccine calculator could spit out for me was that between 12 and 24 million people are ahead of me in the queue.

But Ottawa has put more emphasis on commercial sensitivity than on being frank with Canadians about vaccine procurement and distribution.

That secrecy has rebounded on the government, creating the impression that Canada is a laggard when it comes to distribution.

Dominic LeBlanc, the inter-governmental affairs minister, was obliged to point out the provinces are being “simplistic” in claiming they are running out of vaccine – they know more doses are coming every week, with more than 600,000 scheduled for February alone.

Canadians are watching covetously as Israel inoculates nearly one quarter of its population in short order. The U.S. has already vaccinated 2.72 per cent of its people and the U.K. is at nearly four per cent. But those countries are ahead of the pack. Canada, which has vaccinated 0.89 of its citizens, is in the top 10 worldwide, far ahead of countries like Germany, France, Norway and Sweden.

Frankly, I’m amazed we secured any vaccine last month, though I’d probably be less surprised if the contract details were made public. One presumes taxpayers paid a hefty premium for early delivery.

But, given the surging number of COVID cases and deaths, it may prove money well spent.

A new Maru/Blue Public Opinion poll on attitudes towards the virus and vaccines suggests anxiety levels are rising – 70 per cent are concerned about contracting the virus, up six points on a September survey; only 10 per cent won’t get the vaccine, down six points from December.

The poll also reveals that 57 per cent of respondents think the Trudeau government is doing a good job with the rollout.

Approval would likely be even higher were ministers less muddled – intentionally or otherwise – about when Canadians could expect to get potentially life-saving injections.

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Twitter.com/IvisonJ

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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