Where did Canada’s vaccine effort actually go wrong?

Almost despite the odds, Canada’s vaccination campaign has finally hit its stride: Half of the country has been vaccinated in about five months. More than 20 million doses have gone into arms, and Canada is leading the G7 in vaccinations per day. Shipments are arriving in abundance, and on time; provinces, territories, cities and pharmacies are giving shots nearly as quickly as they’re getting vaccines; and Canadians are stepping up en masse.

At this rate, Canada is well on track to make good on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s target to have everyone inoculated by the end of September—a pledge once derided as unrealistic.

But through it all, there has been a lingering belief that Canada’s approach has been a total disaster; that there were serious mistakes made at every step of the way that seriously impacted Canadians’ access to vaccines; that this pandemic was worse than it had to be, because of ineptitude in Ottawa.

In early February, the Globe and Mail front page screamed that “the country’s early vaccination rollout is collapsing.” A National Post column proclaimed that “Ottawa’s mistakes ensured you’ll likely be vaccinated six months later than everyone else.” This magazine ran a piece last summer contending the federal government was “bungling” vaccine plans.

The criticism has continued. On May 12, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole insisted that the federal government’s vaccine procurement plan is “why we’re in a disastrous third wave,” wondering aloud whether “how much longer will the pandemic be in Canada because of this government’s vaccine failures?”

Generally speaking, the arguments fall into three categories:

  • Canada spent too much time and energy trying to make a bad idea work, with its plans to partner with Chinese manufacturer CanSino;
  • Canada negotiated bad deals, and late;
  • Canada failed to scale up domestic capacity that could have made these vaccines here at home.

Conversations with people in Canada’s vaccine industry, federal officials, and documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by Maclean’s show that, while there are elements of truth in each—and clear evidence of lessons needing to be learned—the idea that our vaccine rollout was omnishambles just isn’t right.

There is a consensus that figuring out what, exactly, we did wrong—and what we did right—is going to be core to figuring out how we can do better next time.

So let’s take these issues in turn.

We put ‘all our eggs’ in CanSino

One of the most pervasive notions about Canada’s vaccine plans rests on the idea that the CanSino deal represented a massive opportunity cost in our quest to get vaccines.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has hammered away on this, alleging that the Trudeau government put “all our eggs in the basket of China.” He would, in May, allege that the decision to partner with CanSino is “why we have a third wave.” But there has been scant evidence to support it.

At the same time, Ottawa’s fervent refusal to share basic information about its effort to fund vaccine candidates have allowed the misconception to thrive.

Hundreds of pages of briefing notes obtained by Maclean’s through the Access to Information Act, prepared by the National Research Council (NRC) between May and September of 2020, reveal exactly what was going on with the CanSino project behind the scenes.

When the pandemic first hit, the NRC took on the responsibility of trying to identify promising candidates that it could help get through the various clinical trials and regulatory hurdles to help combat the pandemic.

Vaccines, the NRC notes in the documents, normally take between 12 to 18 months from research to approval. “It is vital,” the NRC briefing notes reads, that the whole government “work together to shorten that timeline to the greatest extent possible.”

There was logic to why CanSino was chosen: “The NRC has a strong collaborative history with CanSino,” the documents read. “Including licensing the platform cell line used to develop this vaccine.” CanSino’s vaccine candidate was based on an adenovirus platform: A type of vaccine that the NRC had worked with extensively, in developing vaccines for both rabies and Ebola.

Things were scaled up rather quickly: In late April, CanSino was the first vaccine to advance to phase II clinical trials in the world. The application for human trials in Halifax was approved on May 15 and within days NRC was reporting that “vaccine materials are currently en route from China to Canada.” Global Affairs Canada was roped in a few days later to provide “logistical support” for the transfer.

The NRC was realistic about just how impactful such a project would be, however. “Once fully operational, in the event CanSino proceeds, NRC will be able to produce 70,000 to 100,000 doses of vaccine per month.” It wasn’t much, but the NRC hoped those doses could go to health-care workers and first responders. More doses could have been acquired from the supplier directly, but such a decision is the responsibility of Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC).

But, crucially: CanSino wasn’t the only project that the NRC was pursuing.

On March 30, 2020, the NRC signed an agreement with Boston-based VBI Vaccines and its Ottawa subsidiary, Variation Biotechnologies, to pursue their vaccine candidate. On May 6, the NRC signed its agreement with VIDO-InterVac, a vaccine research facility in the University of Saskatchewan. The final agreement with CanSino was actually the third one signed, on May 7.

As the three vaccine candidates sped ahead towards clinical trials, the NRC began making investments to its Royalmount facility, in Montreal, in anticipation of having an approved vaccine to produce—likely the CanSino candidate. In late May, nearly $45 million had been dedicated to upgrade the NRC lab, with an eye to invest more cash to “increase dosage production.”

But “shipping challenges” made clear that the project was troubled early on. The initial deadline was slated for early June. But, by mid-June, the shipment was simply “stalled.” (iPolitics has reported that Ottawa was aware that Beijing was holding up these shipments as early as mid-May.)

Even as Chinese officials held up the shipment, seemingly in a tit-for-tat retaliation in worsening diplomatic relations with Ottawa, the NRC reported in July that “CanSino remains very committed to the Canadian clinical trials.”

Several pages of the memos were withheld under the Access to Information Act, as the NRC deemed their release could be “injurious to the conduct of international affairs.”

Meanwhile, the other vaccines candidates began to show promise. Animal trials for VBI’s candidate began in early June and the NRC provided $1 million in funding for initial scale-up. The scope of the VIDO agreement was expanded “for NRC to provide additional support to accelerate scale up production.” The NRC also made plans to develop a cell line, a crucial bit of biotechnology needed to replicate the cells at the heart of the vaccine, for VIDO to use.

The NRC also forged ahead to expand its own site “to increase dosage production and enable packaging, labelling and distribution of product from the site.” The upgrades, however, became increasingly necessary as the NRC discovered that its existing labs would not pass inspection for “Current Good Manufacturing Practises” standards.

So Ottawa drew up plans to build a whole new facility, which the Prime Minister announced in August.

“The upgrade and expansion of Royalmount will position the NRC to support the biomanufacturing of various vaccine candidates at different stages of development simultaneously,” the briefing notes say. The price tag would surpass $150 million, but the NRC hoped the new facilities would allow it to produce upwards of two million doses a month by “end of the fiscal…

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