Top health officials say they are “cautiously optimistic” about Canada’s odds of obtaining a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine for distribution sometime in the first quarter of 2021.
But even if that timeline is met, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam warns that doses would be in short supply at first — which would force governments to decide who gets immunized first.
“While that supply will continue to increase over time, it does mean that federal, provincial and territorial governments will have to make important decisions about how to use the initial vaccine supply,” Tam told reporters at a press conference Friday.
Tam said preliminary guidelines published earlier this week by Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), a multi-disciplinary panel of experts, should help guide decisions on who should be first in line.
Key populations identified by NACI for early immunization include seniors and people with high-risk conditions, health care workers, long-term care providers and people who can’t work virtually, such as police, firefighters and grocery staff.
“There are many conversations to be had about who gets those first doses of vaccines,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“The most vulnerable, Indigenous peoples, frontline health workers — these are the kinds of populations we’re looking at for their high degree of vulnerability. But of course, those are conversations that will be had amongst provinces and territories and including experts.”
WATCH: Dr. Howard Njoo discusses COVID vaccine approvals, now expected early next year
Canada betting on multiple vaccine candidates
The Government of Canada has signed deals with several teams of vaccine developers to reserve millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines in various stages of development — an effort to make sure Canadians can start getting immunized as soon as a vaccine becomes available.
While many vaccine candidates have shown promising early results, Tam warned that further research must be done in clinical trials to ensure they are safe and effective and Health Canada still needs to evaluate and approve any vaccines before they can be distributed.
Health Canada has so far received three official applications for vaccine approval, all of which are under review: from U.K.-based AstraZeneca, which is manufacturing a vaccine developed at the University of Oxford; from U.S. biotechnology firm Moderna, which launched the first Phase 3 clinical trial in the U.S. in July; and from U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech, which are collaborating on a vaccine.
“We will be receiving additional advice on prioritization based on the characteristics of each vaccine once approved,” said Tam.
WATCH: Trudeau says the first COVID vaccines are close to being approved but are tricky to handle
Beyond deciding who will get priority, bureaucrats at all levels of government are working to ensure the infrastructure and equipment is in place to distribute vaccines once they are ready, said Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo.
That work includes procuring equipment (such as syringes) and ensuring there is cold storage infrastructure in place to store and transport vaccines — some of which need to be kept at extremely low temperatures.
Njoo pointed out that the vaccine furthest along the development phase needs to be stored at -80 C, which could pose logistical challenges for the pharmacies and doctor’s offices typically involved in vaccine distribution.
“That’s not the way most vaccines in Canada in the past … in fact, none of them have been obligated to have that kind of cold chain in terms of logistics,” said Njoo. “We have to … work out the mechanics in terms of buying the right kinds of freezers, etcetera, the transportation mechanisms, etcetera, to be able to assure that if that’s the first one out of the pipeline that get’s approved … that we’re able to do that in the most effective and efficient manner.”
Njoo said all vaccines will be free of charge to all Canadians once they become available.