OTTAWA — The Pallister government said it may be forced to halt COVID-19 vaccination appointments a second time after Ottawa announced Canada won't receive any doses from Pfizer-BioNTech next week.
The federal government said Tuesday it was unable to tell provinces how many doses to expect over the next month, but Manitoba said it anticipates receiving half the shipment it was told to expect by the end of January.
The U.S. drugmaker plans to cut production at its facility in Belgium to retool it so it can ramp up the number of doses produced there. The pause means Canada's deliveries will be smaller than expected for the next four weeks, and no doses will be delivered during the week of Jan. 25.
"Our entire shipment is deferred," said Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the Canadian military commander who is co-ordinating the 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 next week. Fortin said Canada's shipments will "pick back up again" during the first week of February. He had no specifics yet on that number.
Four days ago, Fortin said Canada didn't expect any reductions this week, and that next week's shipment would be about half of the amount that had been promised.
The office of Manitoba Health Minister Heather Stefanson said it originally expected 18,720 doses to arrive from Jan. 19 till the end of the month. That number was reduced to 10,530 last week. On Tuesday, the number was revised downward again — to 9,360 doses.
"This is incredibly disappointing news for me as the minister, as I know it is for many Manitobans who see the vaccine as (a) ray of hope," Stefanson wrote in a statement.
"The level of uncertainty caused by missed or reduced vaccine shipments will affect our work in the weeks ahead. But please be assured, we are fully equipped to adjust to the changing circumstances."
Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical head of Manitoba’s vaccine task force, said officials will still book appointments, but might halt the practice if they are unable to guarantee a timely second dose.
"We will not sacrifice safety for speed," she wrote in a statement.
Other provinces are being forced to cancel appointments, or hold off giving second doses longer than they had planned.
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 Tuesday. But he was less specific about what phone calls he has made himself or whether he has even called Bourla.
"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 176,000 of a different vaccine from Moderna.
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 get fewer doses over the next four weeks because of upgrades to the Belgium facility.
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 terms of shipment slowdowns, and that she was assured that would happen. However the company has not made clear how many other countries are affected, or how those deliveries are being divided.
Fortin said the cuts 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 it be kept at 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 accounted for as soon as the bigger shipments start coming, said Fortin.
Meanwhile, Trudeau also urged Canadians who might be planning an international trip 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 that arrived in Canada from abroad since Jan. 4 alone, on which at least one passenger had COVID-19.
That includes four flights from London since Jan. 6, when a temporary ban on incoming flights from the United Kingdom was lifted.
Trudeau would not say, when pressed, what other measures he is considering, noting only that travellers must currently present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding planes abroad, and must still quarantine for two weeks after arriving in Canada.
— staff, The Canadian Press