Countries like Canada that are waiting for vaccine shipments amid an international shortage could have done more in the early days of the pandemic to boost their own domestic production capacity, according to a leading vaccine expert from the United Kingdom.
Oxford University Regius professor of medicine Sir John Bell was responsible for overseeing the development of the Astrazeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, which is approved in the U.K. but not yet in Canada. He said the U.K. went to great lengths to scale up its production in early 2020 as vaccine trials began.
“We started from nothing, and we’re now pretty pleased that we’re in pretty good shape. Lots of other countries decided that they would rely on others, and that perhaps has not proved to be the right strategy,” Bell told CTV’s Question Period in an exclusive interview with Evan Solomon airing Sunday.
Canada received zero new shipments of vaccines earlier this week due to a production delay from Pfizer, which is making adjustments to its factory in Belgium. At the same time, federal officials are in talks with Pfizer over whether a vial can supply five or six vaccines — a difference that has raised questions about whether Canada will lag behind its goal to vaccine 3 million Canadians by the end of March.
But the U.K. and the U.S. have not seen the same slowdown because they have a larger production capacity.
Bell, who is Canadian, said Canada should think of vaccines as a health security issue and suggested that Canada is “overly dependent” on the U.S.
“Although the current administration in the U.S., I think will be more sympathetic — the previous administration was not going to give you a leg up on any of this stuff. So you know you do have to be independent and autonomous in these health security issues,” he said.
The federal government has invested more than $126 million to build a new biomanufacturing facility in Montreal to help produce vaccine candidates for emergency use. The site remains under construction and is expected to be ready by July.
Another facility in Montreal is being upgraded to help produce vaccines, but it also remains under construction. The government says that, based on a “conservative approach,” the facility could produce 250,000 doses per month depending on the vaccine’s specifications.
The U.K. was able to increase its vaccine manufacturing capabilities from “very close to zero” in a matter of 10 months, Bell said. The strategy was to repurpose existing manufacturing facilities elsewhere in the country to suit vaccine production.
“They repurposed those, they transferred the technology to them, they learned how to scale up, they went through all the hard yards it takes to become a manufacturing facility,” he said.
Asked if Canada missed an opportunity in the early days of the pandemic, Bell said: “I’m not going to get into a discussion about whether you guys did the right thing or the wrong thing. The reality is you don’t have enough vaccine, you know you need to get on with it.”
One way to speed up vaccine distribution would be to approve more vaccines. Bell pointed to the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which is still under review by Health Canada, as one possibility.
“That will increase your numbers pretty dramatically,” he said.
Health Canada revealed Friday that it is on track to approve the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine by mid-February and suggested that a fourth vaccine approval may not be far behind.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Canada’s rollout strategy has been held up by the fact that the government did not go far enough in its efforts to produce vaccines in Canada.
“Last March, April when we saw countries hoarding PPE, medical supplies, planes not leaving tarmacs — did they think it was going to be better with the vaccine?” O’Toole told CTV’s Question Period.
The federal government’s main strategy has long been to procure a variety of vaccine candidates from multiple producers across the globe in the event that they were approved, thereby diversifying Canada’s stockpile. In total, Canada has secured more than 400 million vaccine doses from several companies, but so far only two — Moderna and Pfizer — have been approved.
As of Friday, just over 2 per cent of Canada’s population has received at least their first vaccine, according to tracking by CTVNews.ca.