National Newswatch

OTTAWA — Canada is not going to get any vaccine doses from Pfizer-BioNTech next week and the federal government says it still can't tell provinces exactly how many doses to expect over the next month.

The U.S. drugmaker is cutting back production at its European production facility in Belgium to upgrade capacity and increase the total doses produced there. But the pause means Canada's expected deliveries are going to be smaller for the next four weeks, including getting nothing at all the week of Jan. 25.

"Our entire shipment is deferred," said Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the Canadian military commander co-ordinating the COVID-19 vaccine rollout for the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Canada was to get more than 417,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week and next, but will now get just 171,093 doses this week and nothing the next week. Fortin said Canada's shipments will "pick back up again" the first week of February but said he had no specifics yet on what that number will be.

Just four days ago Fortin said Canada didn't expect any reduction this week, and that next week's shipment would be about half of what was previously promised.

Provincial premiers, already frustrated that vaccine supplies are coming in more slowly than they'd like, are being forced to cancel vaccine appointments, delay making new ones, or hold off giving second doses longer than hoped.

Just moments before Fortin announced there wouldn't be any shipments next week, Ontario issued an updated delivery schedule saying the province expected its deliveries to be down five per cent this week and 80 per cent next week, but those estimates seem to be out of date.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to put heavy pressure on Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. 

"If I was in (Trudeau's) shoes … I'd be on that phone call every single day," Ford said. "I'd be up that guy's yin-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn't know what hit him ... I would not stop until we get these vaccines."

Trudeau said his procurement minister, Anita Anand, has been on the phone with the company every day, a fact she confirmed in a briefing later. But he was less specific about what phone calls he has made himself or whether he has attempted to call Bourla at all.

"We continue to work every day, reaching out to the top levels of vaccine companies, including myself being involved, to ensure we are getting the doses we need," Trudeau said outside his Rideau Cottage residence Tuesday morning.

Israel, which signed a contract with Pfizer to get vaccine doses more than three months after Canada did, has already received two million doses. Canada has received about 600,000 from Pfizer and another 176,000 of a different vaccine from Moderna. 

More than half a million people have now been vaccinated with at least one dose. Both vaccines require two doses for full effectiveness.

Israel has signed a deal with Pfizer to share extensive data on how the vaccine works in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he has had 17 conversations with Bourla himself, and that Israel expects to vaccinate all citizens over the age of 16 by the end of March.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was on the phone to Bourla Friday when Europe was informed it would also be getting fewer doses over the next four weeks because of the facility upgrades.

Before the weekend was over, Pfizer said Europe would only be affected for one week. Canada, a Pfizer Canada spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday, will be affected for the next several weeks.

Anand said she told Pfizer on the weekend she expected Canada to be treated equitably in the shipment slowdowns, and that she got assurances that would happen. However the company has not made clear how many other countries are being affected, or how those deliveries are being divided.

Fortin said the cutbacks will affect some provinces more than others because Pfizer's vaccine is delivered in trays of 975 doses each. The product has strict requirements for transportation and storage, demanding ultracold temperatures until shortly before it's administered.

The delivery trays can't be further divided easily, which mean some provinces get even less than they were already expecting. 

That will be fixed as soon as the bigger shipments start coming, said Fortin.

Meanwhile, Trudeau also urged Canadians who might be planning an international trip in the near future to cancel it.

Trudeau said Canadians have the right to travel but the government could at any time, and without warning, enforce new restrictions on travellers returning to Canada.

New variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 add a level of uncertainty that could affect decisions about how to handle international arrivals. Potentially worrisome variants have been detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has documented 183 flights arriving in Canada from abroad since Jan. 4 alone, on which at least one passenger had COVID-19.

That includes four flights from London since a temporary ban on incoming flights from the United Kingdom was lifted Jan. 6. 

Trudeau would not say when pressed what other measures he is considering, noting only that travellers now must present negative COVID-19 tests before boarding their planes, and must still quarantine for two weeks after arriving in Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2021.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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