Officials insist Canada still on track for 4M Pfizer doses by March despite planning data

WATCH: When asked on Thursday why some provincial governments are telling Global News reporter David Akin that Canada is receiving 3.5 million versus 4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of March, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, head of the Canadian COVID-19 vaccine distribution team, replied the country will hit this number once Health Canada approves Pfizer's suggestion that each vial of vaccine contains six doses versus five, which is where the discrepancy lies.

Come hell or high water, the Prime Minister’s Office insists the country will get the promised four million doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine by the end of March.

It comes after a chaotic morning of questions prompted by planning data sent by the federal government to provinces, who promptly raised the alarm at the numbers showing they could receive only 3.5 million doses rather than four million.

But officials insisted those numbers are only “minimums” and come amid a push by Pfizer to get Health Canada to approve squeezing an extra dose out of each vial of vaccine.

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“Pfizer certainly intends on fulfilling their contractual obligations,” Gen. Dany Fortin, who is overseeing logistical planning for Canada’s vaccine distribution efforts, told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday.

“We are providing as much visibility as possible to the provinces and territories.”

Sources from multiple premiers’ offices told Global News Thursday that data provided to them by federal officials showed that Canada’s goal of four million vaccines by March had been reduced to 3.5 million.

One source told Global News that Alberta’s total shipments under that timeline could be 13 per cent less than previously expected.

Fortin said the data was for provinces to “plan against” and was “a baseline” provinces can build on while sorting out their own vaccination logistics.

“The numbers are accurate in terms of planning, but we know those numbers will grow to meet the target of four million doses by the end of March,” Fortin said.

“There’s a number of variables still at play.”

The key variable is whether Health Canada approves a request from the company to boost the number of doses it extracts from each vial of the vaccine from five to six.

It would allow the company to send fewer vials to Canada, while still meeting its contractual obligations.

A source from the Prime Minister’s Office tells Global News that it is expected Health Canada will change the doses from five to six. When that happens, Canada will hit its four million target with the same number of trays of vials being shipped by Pfizer.

However, if Health Canada does not give the green light, the source said Pfizer will increase the shipments of vials to fulfill its contractual obligation of four million, nonetheless.

As it stands, federal officials are “doing the math” with five doses per vial, Fortin said, while Pfizer is doing so with six doses.

“That decision (by Health Canada) has not been made yet, so that decision reflects in the data,” Fortin said.

“Planning figures can be misleading, but we will assure we have good, meaningful, bilateral discussions to assure them of what we’re currently thinking.”

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The nationwide reduction in vaccines stems, in part, from a production delay at Pfizer’s factory in Europe. The company is scaling up its manufacturing capacity in Belgium — a move it said would impact the vaccine’s production for a “short period.”

Shipments have been reduced by an average of 50 per cent over a four-week period between January and February.

Over the next two weeks, Canada is to receive 149,000 doses of that vaccine — one-fifth of what had previously been promised.

Officials have maintained that the reduction in shipments for January and February would be made up when deliveries “ramp up” in March.

“Pfizer assures us they will recover from that quite significantly and rapidly,” he said at Thursday’s press conference.

 

To date, Canada has received about 1,122,450 doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, according to a vaccine tracker by the University of Saskatchewan. A tally by the Public Health Agency of Canada shows the total number of vaccines delivered as 1,119,225.

Pfizer has indicated to Canada that vaccine deliveries would also be impacted through February. The next two weeks will be lower than initially planned, Fortin said, with 79,000 doses next week and approximately 70,000 the second week of February,

From there, Fortin expects things to still scale up to meet the four million target and beyond.

But it’s a “long game,” Fortin added.

Canada has set a goal to obtain enough approved vaccines for anyone who wishes to be vaccinated by the end of September. Fortin maintained Thursday that he is confident that goal will be met.

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Provincial governments decried the latest projections from the federal government.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said on Twitter that Ottawa had lowered its estimates for total Pfizer vaccines in-hand by the end of March from four million to 3.5 million.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford expressed his disappointment with Pfizer later Thursday, saying the delays are “unacceptable.”

“They’ve let the people of Ontario down, they’ve let the people of Canada down.”

Several provinces have already used up nearly all their vaccine supply and have been forced to push back their vaccination schedules.

Ontario announced this week it would pause vaccinations of long-term care staff and essential caregivers due to upcoming delivery delays. Saskatchewan announced Sunday it had exhausted all the doses it had received so far, while Quebec said it had used up more than 90 per cent of its supply.

Canada is not the only country concerned about the slow pace of vaccine rollout. Worries about supply and speed are brewing around the world.

A recent analysis from The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) suggested Canada may not be on track for widespread vaccination by September 2021, which is when Trudeau has vowed everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one.

The researchers predict widespread vaccination won’t happen in Canada until mid-2022.

“Every government around the world has promised its population that they would get access to coronavirus vaccines soon. However, our index shows that this is not a realistic pledge,” Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director of the EIU and author of the report, told Global News in an email.

“Based on a host of indicators, including supply deals, production constraints, vaccine hesitancy, the size of the population, and the availability of healthcare workers, we believe that the immunization of 60-70% of the Canadian population will be completed in early 2022.”

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The report ranked countries by their vaccine timelines to date and the assessed likelihood that they will hit those.

Canada came up on par with Brazil, while the United States and Europe were all on track for widespread vaccination by the end of this year.

Demarais notes that Canada’s unique and vast territory will be a “specific hurdle,” making it hard for vaccines to reach remote regions. Production delays, like the ones unfolding in Belgium, will also be part of the constraint, she said.

— with files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ David Akin, Rachel Gilmore and Amanda Connolly 

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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