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JIM VIBERT: Canada scrambles to be near head of the line for COVID-19 vaccine

- Reuters

Nova Scotians who are still waiting for the seasonal flu shot may be rolling up their sleeves for a COVID-19 vaccination before they get one for the flu.

The provincial Department of Health and Wellness isn't quite ready to concede that demand outstripped its supply of flu vaccine this fall, but word from the department took a decidedly dubious turn last week when it was asked if there was more coming.

“(We) ordered more (flu vaccine) doses this year than we ever have,” the department said, as it's been saying all along.

But in early November, that declaration of preparation was followed by soothing assurances that “there is not a shortage of flu vaccine,” and the province has “enough for everyone who wants a vaccine this year.”

Those assurances were conspicuously absent from the department's most recent reply and replaced by a far more uncertain undertaking that “the province is working with our federal partners to secure more influenza vaccine.”

That effort may yet pay off, provided of course that everyone in Ottawa whose job has anything to do with vaccines hasn't already shifted their full attention to securing COVID-19 vaccine.

The combination of promising clinical trials, fast-tracked approvals and psychological imperative have two COVID-19 vaccines on the precipice of a public rollout, with a third coming right behind.

Even before the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines clear regulatory approvals, a leap of faith has been made that they'll prove safe and effective, and distribution will begin as early as December, although not in Canada.

The Astrazeneca vaccine, developed with Oxford University, has run into some issues around its clinical trials that may delay, but are unlikely to derail, its rollout, also expected early next year.

With the rather sudden arrival of not one but three apparently viable vaccines, political debate in Canada immediately turned to when the vaccines would be delivered to Canadians.

The federal government pre-purchased millions of doses speculatively. Fortunately, Pfizer, Moderna and Astrazeneca were all among the manufacturers Ottawa cut deals with.

But Canada has no vaccine production capability of its own so, despite the federal government successfully procuring more doses than Canadians will need, those nations where the vaccine is actually produced are at the front of the line.

And that could put the federal Liberals in a tough political spot.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pointed out, people in Britain, the United States, Germany and other nations with production capability will almost certainly get the vaccine ahead of Canadians.

The optics of Americans, Brits, Germans and other nationals getting immunized for COVID-19 ahead of Canadians makes for lousy politics that will turn downright ugly if the lag time between the two is anything more than a month or two.

Lost in the scramble of nations finding a place at or near the front of the line is the lofty global principle that the vaccine ought to be distributed equitably among all nations.

Canada, like most other wealthy countries, contributes to an international effort to ensure vaccine finds its way to citizens of the impoverished world, but the tenor of the current debate in Ottawa and other world capitals, seems to suggest that, as usual, the poor will get theirs after the rich are satisfied.

When it rolls out, the vaccine will come in waves. Essential workers and those most vulnerable to the disease will be vaccinated first.

In Canada, that likely means those folks will be vaccinated in the first half of 2021, with the rest of us getting ours sometime before the end of the year.

Of course, all of this assumes that the vaccines prove safe, effective and that production proceeds apace.

But, if all goes reasonably well, most of us will gladly trade the great pause of 2020 for the long wait of 2021.

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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