February 05, 2021
Canada's 'second best' vaccine strategy under the microscope

With still-reduced numbers of vaccine doses landing in Canada and heightened scrutiny over the uncertainty of future shipments, the feds sought to put the spotlight on months-away domestic capacity. Did it work?

The week that was
From a promising December start, to a stalling out of sorts in January, Canada's vaccine campaign has been off to a slow start and now it'll be mid-February before shots are going in arms at the rates prepared for.
Facing reduced shipments because Canada is at the mercy of major international pharmaceutical companies, the federal government has been under the microscope for several weeks now.
In an attempt to shift focus, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Tuesday that the federal government had signed a "memorandum of understanding" with U.S.-based Novavax to pursue options to produce its COVID-19 vaccine at a new Montreal facility.
However, that site is still under construction and vaccine production there isn't expected to be able to start until this fall at the earliest, meaning it won’t play a role in the current and pressing pandemic vaccination campaign unless the rollout goes considerably off the rails.
Then came the admission from Procurement Minister Anita Anand.
Seeking to defend Canada's position while testifying before a House of Commons committee digging into Canada's vaccine capacity, Anand told MPs on Thursday that her department "proactively and repeatedly approached leading vaccine manufacturers" about setting up production in Canada, however all of them turned the offer down, saying capacity here was "too limited to justify the investment." 
Doubling down, her parliamentary secretary said that the federal government has taken the "second best" COVID-19 vaccine procurement approach, given Canada is lacking domestic capacity.
In an interview on CTV News Channel's Power Play, Quebec Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon said that Canada spending more than $1 billion on vaccine procurement agreements to lock in up to 429 million doses from seven vaccine manufacturers was the next best thing that the federal government could do.
"What Canada did is choose the second best option, which is to buy from those pharmaceutical companies from the manufacturing locations that could supply us the quickest," MacKinnon said.
Oh, and there was also the COVAX controversy.
Facing the current shortage and the reality that domestic capability won't be there until late 2021, this week Canada opted to dip in to the supplies from global vaccine-sharing effort known as COVAX, meaning Canada's set to receive a minimum of 1.9 million and up to 3.2 million doses of the yet-to-be-approved-here AstraZeneca vaccine before the end of June.
The move was met with criticism from some, suggesting that a G7 country should not be seeking access to a vaccine resource that's aimed at pooling procurements to provide doses to lower-income nations.
However, the federal government has stood by the move, stating that it's Canada's right, as the program is designed, to access doses and noting it's one of the leading donors to the program.
Canada has spent $440 million towards the COVAX initiative, half of which was intended for Canada to be able to secure up to 15 million doses for use in this country, and the other $220 million to go towards lower income nations' purchases of vaccines. 
Now, all eyes are on Health Canada to approve AstraZeneca, and then Johnson & Johnson. If either, or both, get the green light in the coming weeks there could be millions more doses on their way to Canada and the pressure would likely be off the government somewhat to back up their continued assertions that the target of vaccinating everyone who wants to be by the end of September will be met.

On Friday, in an attempt to reassure Canadians who are frustrated about the pace and scale of the national COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Trudeau said that people should not be worried about the "noise" surrounding the campaign, because the government remains "on track" to meet its targets, based on phone calls he's had with the vaccine-makers' CEOs. 

"I hear it from all Canadians right now… They want to know when they can go back to everything they've done before... When the vaccines are going to come? That's why there's a lot of anxiety and there's a lot of noise going on right now," Trudeau said during his Rideau Cottage address. "I know how tired we all are. I know how anxious we are to see our loved ones safe, to see life returning to normal. We feel it too," he said.

The other major news this week was that the federal government added 13 new extremist groups, including the Proud Boys, to the Criminal Code list of terrorist entities, freezing their assets and opening up people who are affiliated with them to criminal sanctions.
The move was a major step towards combatting ideologically-motivated extremist sentiment in Canada, making Canada the first country to make the decision to label the Proud Boys as a serious terror threat.
In addition to several al Qaeda and Daesh affiliates as well as one new international terror group being added to the list, the federal government moved to list four ideologically motivated violent extremist organizations.
In making the announcement the government emphasized that federal intelligence agencies consider ideologically-motivated violent extremism a "growing threat," and countering the online component of these organizations remains a "complex and ever-evolving issue."
While Public Safety Minister Bill Blair could not provide specific intelligence gathered that led to the inclusion of the Proud Boys on the terror list, he said federal security officials have been monitoring its activities for some time and have seen "an escalation" among its members.
"There is a trove of evidence that has become available to us through the work of our law enforcement and security officials, but also the Americans, that really demonstrates the criminal intent, the violent criminal intent to engage in violent insurrection but also targeting individuals, targeting politicians for violent acts, all of which crosses that threshold where we believe it's necessary and appropriate to list them as a terrorist entity," Blair said in an interview on CTV News Channel's Power Play.
While NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was quick to point to his House motion calling for the listing of the Proud Boys, officials emphasized on Wednesday the decision was an action taken based on intelligence and the law, and "very much aside" from politics.

In lighter news, an award-winning Indigenous poet and residential school survivor who has used poetry to confront Canada's fraught history with Indigenous people has been selected as the next parliamentary poet laureate.
Louise Bernice Halfe, who is also known by her Cree name Sky Dancer, was appointed Canada's ninth poet laureate, succeeding Nova Scotia's Georgette LeBlanc.
Not to be missed
  • Trudeau spoke with U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris on Monday about a series of cross-border issues, including the Democrats' "Buy American" policy, according to his office. In a readout from the bilateral call, the PMO says the pair talked about Harris' years spent in Montreal, which she "recalled fondly," and the two leaders dug into some pressing policy matters. 
  • On Thursday, the Conservatives opted to focus their opposition day debate on a motion proposing to create a special committee on the economic relationship between Canada and the United States. It hasn't come to a vote yet but if the opposition sentiment is anything like it was when Erin O'Toole proposed the special Canada-China committee, it could become reality.    
  • And, could a political comeback be on the horizon? Former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes says she misses politics despite a challenging four years as an elected official that saw her quit the Liberal caucus. "It's in the blood, it's in the bloodstream and once you get bit that's it," Caesar-Chavannes said Monday in an interview. 
Quote of the week

"PSPC proactively and repeatedly approached leading vaccine manufacturers with offers to leverage this domestic capacity and possibility here in Canada. We took this issue up with suppliers, at every turn at the negotiating table to discern whether they would come to the table with this possibility of domestic biomanufacturing. The manufacturers reviewed the identified assets here in Canada, and concluded that biomanufacturing capacity in this country at the time of contracting—which was last August and September— was too limited to justify the investment of capital, and expertise to start manufacturing in Canada,"

-Procurement Minister Anita Anand, during committee testimony on Canada's domestic capacity shortfalls on Thursday.  

On notice
It's like they just got back to work, but MPs have a constituency week coming up. It's kind of an odd concept now, given that almost all members of Parliament are conducting their House of Commons business from their ridings, but alas: after adjournment on Friday no more debating bills or question period until the day after Valentines Day.

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