I thought a phrase like this was a thing of the past. It belonged in a primitive era, where survival of the fittest was the dominant way of life. It belonged in movies like the Hunger Games or Death Race, where the protagonists are thrown into impossible life-or-death situations which felt so fantastical that it could only exist in a work of fiction. Perhaps it was my naïveté, but I believed the very framework of our world was built on the certainty of agreements, treaties, and cooperation. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, however, it’s that this phrase rings truer than it should.
As of September 2021, over half of Ontario adults have now been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Over 52 million doses have been administered across Canada, at 141 doses per 100 people. Canada now ranks 12th in the world for doses administered per 100 people, according to the COVID vaccinations tracker run by the New York Times.
At the beginning of 2021, my friends and I lamented our state of lockdown as we watched our peers in the UK and US indulge in indoor dining, movie theatres, and fitness facilities.
However, this was not always the case. In fact, when the United States and United Kingdom first started vaccinating their citizens near the tail end of 2020, Canada was far, far behind.
So why the slow start to our vaccination campaign? Canada is a world leader in biological research, and we used to be a leader in vaccine production. Why were we struggling with rampant outbreaks of COVID-19 variants while our closest neighbours were in the midst of reopening?
The answer lies in the ability to produce these vaccines domestically. Facilities that were originally established to produce vaccines were underfunded and eventually sold to foreign pharmaceutical companies who then moved production to international plants in search of cheaper labour and higher profit margins. This left Canada at the mercy of importing vaccines from our closest trade partners – the EU and US.
In November of 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed several agreements with Moderna and Pfizer for hundreds of millions of vaccine doses. However, since these companies operate under control of the European Union, which was more concerned with vaccinating its own citizens first, Canada was left waiting in line. This, combined with production delays as Moderna and Pfizer tried to expand and scale up vaccine manufacturing, further exacerbated the wait times.
The closest vaccine manufacturing plants are in Michigan and New Hampshire, owned by Pfizer and Moderna, respectively. Since these plants are on American soil, the American Defense Production Act, enacted by US President Joe Biden, compels companies based in the US to cater to American supply demands first, meaning Canada would not see a single dose of Pfizer or Moderna until there was enough supply for every American.
So, what have we learned from this?
It’s every country for themselves. Think of vaccines like crops during a famine. Anyone would feed their own family first no matter how close their ties are with others, and only share once they have excess.
But it isn’t entirely fair to state that the root of our trouble stems from the inability to produce vaccines on Canadian soil.
Strangely enough, there is a pharmaceutical company based in Canada that would have been ready to produce As-traZeneca vaccines by the end of 2020. They are a Montre-al-based company known as PnuVax, and the president of this facility has indicated that they are ready and willing to produce vaccines if given the resources. The government ultimately passed over this company, however, in favour of a public lab that ended up pushing back their vaccine manufacturing timeline from November 2020 to the latter half of 2021. It is unclear whether PnuVax applied for government subsidies or whether their company was ever part of the government’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy – the answers to these questions are hidden behind nondisclosure agreements.
It does appear that the government passed over-relying on the domestic private sector entirely. Instead, efforts were focused toward spending $44 million dollars to upgrade the National Research Council (NRC) facility in Montreal. The government subsequently invested another $126 million dollars into building a brand-new vaccine production facility next door.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, and perhaps the federal government would have made different choices in handling their vaccination campaign looking back, but the best we can do is learn and look forward.
Waiting for the NRC facility to be ready is too late for COVID-19 vaccines, but maybe when the next pandemic comes around, Canada won’t be waiting in line behind others.
- The New York Times (2021) Vaccine Tracker
- Maclean’s Archive (1989) Connaught’s Foreign Sale
- Government of Canada (2021) NRC news release