OTTAWA – Rookie Cabinet Minister Anita Anand fumed when Conservative opposition leader accused the Liberal government throughout the fall of signing bad deals that “put Canada at the back of the pack” for COVID vaccines -19.
Beginning in late October, Erin O’Toole went from rapid test attacks to hammering out what he said was a failure to ensure timely delivery of vaccines to Canadians.
No vaccine has yet been approved anywhere in the world.
But behind the scenes, Anand knew it was impossible for Canada to be the last, even though the Prime Minister admitted that Canada’s lack of domestic production could mean a wait.
Anand had already signed contracts for seven of the most promising vaccine candidates. And while no one knew “who would be the first to cross the finish line,” she said she wasn’t worried. Or under pressure.
But she saw the politics at stake and said that criticism from all opposition parties was “unnecessary … because of the misinformation they continually expressed and provided to the Canadian public.”
Anand, a former professor who taught contract law at the University of Toronto, is all about the details – “accurate information and certainty.” She does not announce vaccine contracts until the ink is dry.
“I agree that the opposition has a role to play in ensuring the accountability of the ruling party,” she said in an exclusive interview with the Star. “But the continued reference to Canada’s position at the end of the line was clearly wrong and the information they were disseminating was wrong.”
In early November, The Economist magazine sniffed that Canada was in fact a vaccinated pig, buying “10 doses for each of its citizens, the most for a country or an alliance per person.”
It was no accident.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted this week that his government should have acted sooner to buy medical masks, gloves and gowns. He lamented the fact that he was caught up in a global buying race last spring as each country searched for dwindling supplies.
“One of the things we learned from the rush for (personal protective equipment) was to be early on the vaccines,” Trudeau said.
In late May and early June, Anand’s team at Public Services and Procurement Canada began talks with companies that its independent vaccine advisory working group saw as good bets.
In July, the President of the Treasury Board, Jean-Yves Duclos, wrote to Anand to give the green light to the purchases, giving him approval to close what would eventually be more than $ 1 billion in transactions.
“That was the word ‘go’ for us,” Anand said.
They concluded the contracts one after the other. An agreement with Moderna was reached on July 24. A week later, they signed one with Pfizer.
Johnson & Johnson and Novavax arrived almost three weeks later, on August 24 and 27 respectively. Then Sanofi on September 11, AstraZeneca on September 24 and the Canadian candidate Medicago on October 22.
Secrecy still surrounds many details. The government has not published individual contracts.
Pfizer and BioNTech submitted their vaccine to Health Canada for review as part of the “continuous submission” process on October 9.
“At the time, we didn’t know how quickly we could deliver the data to submit to Health Canada, nor how quickly they could review it,” a company official told The Star. “Based on this, it was estimated that the vaccine could be approved in January.”
While politically hammered through November, the government knew it had delivery dates on hand for January through March with Pfizer, and separately with Moderna, for the initial six million dose supplies.
Things came to fruition in the second week of November when the Pfizer-BioNTech team reported a 90% efficacy rate for their vaccine. They were followed up the following week by Moderna, who reported an efficacy rate of 94.5% – which Pfizer immediately matched, saying that further analysis of the data also showed a rate of 95%.
These were amazing results.
Many experts had hoped that a vaccine would be developed with an effectiveness rate of 50 to 70%.
Suddenly, it was clear to Anand and Health Minister Patty Hajdu that Canada would likely be able to approve Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – and soon. It was madness to wait until the first quarter of 2021.
“I picked up the phone and called (President of Pfizer Canada) Cole Pinnow and said, ‘We need doses in December. Can you give us these doses? Anand remembers.
Pinnow told Anand of the company’s concerns about whether Canada was ready to receive the Pfizer vaccine, given that it had to be stored at -70 ° C and was fragile.
She said it was “natural” for him to ask these questions, but insisted Canada was ready.
As early as September, some private suppliers bidding for the federal contract raised questions about Canada’s ability to meet ultra-cold requirements for shipping and storage of Pfizer vaccine.
But inside Anand Department, an official said, there was no panic. The government knew it would have to buy freezers; there was already capacity in hospitals and research centers across Canada. The goal, he said, was not to store the vaccines anyway, but to get them into people’s arms as soon as possible.
The department of Anand bought 126 freezers – 26 “ultra-cold” units that can reach -80 ° C and 100 others that can go down to -20 ° C. Of this number, nine ultra-cold units have arrived, eight others. were rented and 33 of the – 20 C freezers arrived.
She said Canada could store 33.5 million doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, whose doses are stable at -20 ° C and can be stored for 30 days at 2 ° C to 8 ° C.
On December 2, Hajdu and Anand wrote a letter to Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca “to assure them that Canada was ready for doses.”
Anand said that she and Pinnow exchanged phone calls and texts almost daily until late November and early December.
There was also a push from global competitors.
Anand said there was professional trust between the company and Canada, and “it was about increasing the doses that we had contracted.
“We didn’t define anything as being early or late,” she said. “We have always wanted the fastest possible deliveries.”
A breakthrough came in the first week of December, days before Health Canada approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine on December 9 for distribution here.
Pfizer confirms Anand’s schedule, adding, “We needed to make sure Pfizer did indeed have doses available for Canada.”
“Confirmation that we would be able to deliver doses earlier came at the end of the week of November 30, and we have advanced our delivery dates, based on the planned authorization of the vaccine by Health Canada and the provincial readiness for earlier deployment of immunization.
The company says that Canada’s supply of vaccines from its manufacturing site in Belgium was “the plan from the start. This is the primary site that will supply the Canadian market and our Kalamazoo (Michigan) site is a secondary site to be operated if necessary. “
“When Cole told me we would have early doses in December, I knew it was true,” Anand said, “and I was able to tell the prime minister accordingly.
“That was before the documents were drafted, but I knew it was going to happen. And as soon as the documents were drafted, we informed the Canadian public.
For Anand, an Oakville MP who left academia in a hurry to join federal politics last year, hearing Pinnow say “yes” to early delivery was everything.
“I tried to take notes during the call to remember everything he said. At the same time… my heart was beating very fast. I knew it was a monumental moment, it would be a monumental moment for our country.
“As soon as I hung up with Cole, I held my husband’s hand and smiled. And I was – I’m almost tearing up now – I knew it was something that would make a difference. And that’s the very reason I quit my job at the University of Toronto and loved being in politics so much, because I wanted to do whatever I could to make a difference in our country. And I really felt at that point that I was making a difference.
On December 7, Trudeau announced that “the vaccines are coming”, flanked by Anand and the Major-General. Dany Fortin, the military commander he appointed to oversee the administration of vaccines.
That was two days before Health Canada gave Pfizer the green light on December 9. Two days later, doses of the vaccine were en route to Canada from Belgium via Germany and Kentucky. The first doses were administered in Quebec and Ontario on December 14.