Procurement Minister Anita Anand says the Canadian government will donate a total of 17.7 million additional doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine through the COVAX vaccine sharing program.
It comes as global cases continue to spike and after increasingly dire warnings from the World Health Organization that countries like Canada must step up to share more vaccines with those without access.
Public health officials have reviewed Canada’s vaccination progress and contracts, and deemed those doses “excess,” Anand said in a press conference on Monday.
“While Canadians continue to lead the world in vaccine administration, we know the picture is very different in many parts of the world,” Anand said.
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Canada has administered roughly three million doses of AstraZeneca, with the majority of doses administered across the country being the mRNA vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna.
The contract with AstraZeneca was for a total of 20 million doses, and there had been a question mark hanging around the future of roughly 17 million doses still under contract.
Anand had said previously that the government was committed to donating additional doses of COVID-19 vaccines, and the influx of mRNA vaccines over the last two months has turned Canada into a global leader in the pace of vaccinations.
Anand said 79 per cent of eligible Canadians have now received at least one dose, while 49 per cent of eligible Canadians are now fully vaccinated. The government’s vaccine tracker, last updated on July 9, listed those rates at 78 per cent and 41 per cent, respectively.
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However, while Canada is racing ahead when it comes to vaccinations, much of the rest of the world still has no access to any vaccines and case counts continue to rise. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre, there are 186,963,461 global cases and more than four million deaths.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last month that in order to end the pandemic globally, 70 per cent of the world’s population must be vaccinated by next year.
“We need more, and we need them faster,” he said of doses.
On Monday, Tedros pointed to the Delta variant as “ripping around the world at a scorching pace.”
David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, echoed those concerns.
“As Canadians, we’ve witnessed first hand the devastating effect the pandemic has had,” Morley said on Monday alongside Anand and International Development Minister Karina Gould.
“The reality is this: the pandemic will not end for anyone until it ends for everyone.”
Anand said the deliveries are set to take place “within the coming weeks.”
It’s not yet clear where COVAX officials will send those doses.
“We are seeing huge increases in COVID-19 around the world,” said Gould, pointing to data from COVAX that suggests a 17 per cent increase in cases in the Africa continental region.
“They are looking to get as many effective, approved vaccines as possible … AstraZeneca is approved by Health Canada, approved by the WHO and countries have a huge appetite for it.”
Canada to match all donations to UNICEF in #GiveAVax initiative
The other challenge around getting vaccines to countries without them has to do with logistics.
“The logistics around AstraZeneca are more straightforward,” said Morley, pointing to challenges like the need to keep the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in colder storage than AstraZeneca.
He also praised the announcement by the government that it will match donations by Canadians under a new UNICEF support program to provide the training and supplies needed to administer vaccines.
That #GiveAVax program will see Ottawa match the fundraising effort up to $10 million.
Gould said it costs about $5 to administer one vaccine and the matching donations will help train health-care workers, transport the doses and safely dispose of needles and vaccine waste.
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged last month that Canada will donate a total of 100 million COVID-19 vaccines globally, and Gould said the 17.7 million AstraZeneca doses will be in addition to that.
Because many of the first doses supplied through the COVAX initiative have been AstraZeneca, Gould said there is now a “high demand” for AstraZeneca for second doses.
There has been low demand for further AstraZeneca doses in Canada, Anand added.
WHO criticizes COVID-19 vaccine mix-and-match, boosters
The majority of Canadians receiving COVID-19 vaccines are getting mRNA vaccines as there has been a huge influx of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines coming into the country over recent months.
Amid that influx, Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended mixing and matching mRNA vaccines, meaning some Canadians have received Pfizer for a first dose and Moderna for a second, or vice versa.
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The World Health Organization’s chief scientist on Monday advised against people mixing and matching COVID-19 vaccines from different manufacturers, calling it a “dangerous trend” since there was little data available about the health impact.
“It’s a little bit of a dangerous trend here. We are in a data-free, evidence-free zone as far as mix and match,” Soumya Swaminathan told an online briefing.
“It will be a chaotic situation in countries if citizens start deciding when and who will be taking a second, a third and a fourth dose.”
But Anand pointed to NACI’s recommendation and said it is up to Canadian provinces to decide whether they will mix and match, adding that she and her family have received mixed doses of their vaccines.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, weighed in as well on Twitter after the WHO’s comments, saying emerging data from the U.K., Spain and Germany indicates Canada’s approach “is safe & provides a significant/robust immune response.”
‘Scandalous inequity:’WHO urges rich countries to get more vaccines for poorer countries
At the same time, there are now growing questions about both the scientific and ethical justification for booster doses being pushed by Pfizer and Moderna.
Tedros took aim at the companies on Monday, urging them to prioritize providing vaccines to COVAX so that health-care workers and vulnerable populations around the world can get the protection of a first dose. He added there is no evidence right now that boosters are needed for those with both shots.
“Currently, data shows us that vaccination offers long lasting immunity against severe and deadly #COVID19. The priority now must be to vaccinate those who have received no doses and protection,” Tedros said.
“Instead of Moderna & Pfizer prioritizing the supply of (vaccines) as boosters to countries whose populations have relatively high coverage, we need them to go all out to channel supply to #COVAX, the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team & low- & low-middle income countries.”
Tedros has previously decried the “scandalous inequity” of vaccine distribution, pointing to the fact that roughly 75 per cent of doses had been administered in just 10 countries as of May 2021.
“No more talk about vaccinating low-income countries in 2023, 2024,” he added.
“This is no time for a lull, we want to see progress being built on and a surge of action to scale up the supply and sharing of lifesaving health tools.”
AstraZeneca blood clot risk more rare for 2nd dose: experts
While the AstraZeneca vaccine is approved by Health Canada as safe and effective, it is linked to rare but serious blood clots known as vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT).
As of mid-May, there were 18 confirmed cases of VITT among Canadians who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine and roughly five deaths linked to the resulting blood clots.
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said in a statement on May 13 that the rate of blood clots from the vaccine in Canada was believed to be one in 83,000 doses administered, but that could rise to one in 55,000 as investigations continued.
Public health officials had initially speculated that the rate was around one in 100,000 on May 1 based on data coming largely out of the United Kingdom, where AstraZeneca is the main vaccine being used.
However, experts also say the risk of a blood clot appears to be much lower following a second dose compared to a first dose of AstraZeneca.
“The risk remains, but it doesn’t seem to be higher when people take the second dose,” Dr. Marc Berthiaume, director of the Bureau of Medical Science at Health Canada, said on May 5.
“The data we have is limited when it comes to the adverse events associated with second use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical advisor with Health Canada, said in May that 4.4 million people in the U.K. had received their second doses of AstraZeneca at the time and there were four cases of associated blood clots afterwards.
That’s a rate of roughly one in a million.
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