Canada has taken delivery of its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from the global vaccine-sharing initiative known as COVAX.
Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading Canada's national vaccine distribution effort, told a technical briefing on the vaccine rollout today that about 317,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine procured through COVAX arrived in Canada this morning.
The doses were manufactured by South Korean pharmaceutical company SK Bioscience.
Canada has contributed $440 million to the COVAX facility, an initiative backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines.
Half of Canada's contribution is going toward purchasing vaccine doses for less developed countries, while the other half purchased doses for Canadians. Canada expects to receive approximately 1.6 million additional doses through COVAX by the end of June.
While any contributing country can draw on COVAX's vaccine supply for its own population, Canada has been widely criticized for taking doses from the initiative. It is the only G7 country expected to draw from the vaccine supply in the program's first allotment — although a few other wealthy countries, such as New Zealand and Singapore, are also doing so. The vast majority of COVAX doses are going to lower- and middle-income countries.
COVAX has delivered 38 million vaccine doses to about 100 countries since making its first international delivery to Ghana in late February, the WHO said in a press release today.
10.5 million doses delivered, Fortin says
The COVAX shipment comes as Canada's vaccination effort slowly ramps up after a sluggish start. But that faster pace hasn't been enough to prevent a third wave fuelled by more transmissible coronavirus variants from gripping much of the country.
A debate erupted this week over the pace of vaccinations after Health Minister Patty Hajdu tweeted a thread Monday evening summarizing federal estimates of the number of vaccines delivered and the number administered.
The statistics appeared to show that only two-thirds of vaccine doses delivered by the federal government had been administered by the provinces and territories.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford shot back, claiming that most of the the doses his critics argued were "sitting on shelves" had been delivered only days earlier.
Today, Fortin cautioned that people should look at a longer time period when judging the rate of vaccination because of the complexity of the supply chain. Fortin said it can take seven to 10 days for the vaccine to arrive in Canada and be distributed to points-of-use.
"The further from the central hub, and the more isolated or rural a region is, the longer the delivery time could be," he said. "Generally, however, we are able to deliver vaccines within two to five days of them arriving in Canada, and provinces then leverage their own distribution systems to further distribute to hundreds of sites across the nation."
WATCH: Maj.-Gen. Fortin on the complex process of distributing vaccines to provinces and territories
Fortin said the federal government has distributed over 10.5 million doses of the approved Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca-Oxford and Serum Institute of India vaccines to the provinces and territories as of today. He maintained that all adults who want to receive a vaccine should get their first doses by summer or early fall.
"If provinces and territories adhere to a four-month interval and the flow of vaccines, as I indicated, is positive or remains the same ... I can't see why we wouldn't be able to accelerate that," said Fortin.
Provinces and territories have opted to extend the interval between first and second shots to up to four months as a result of recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, an expert panel that advises the federal government on vaccine policy.
NACI stood by that recommendation yesterday — even though it goes against what vaccine makers studied in their clinical trials. The committee contends that giving as many Canadians as possible their first doses before offering second doses would give more people some level of protection while the vaccine supply is tight.
Going forward, Pfizer expects to deliver one million doses each week in April and May before ramping up to two million per week in June, for a total of more than 17 million doses by the end of June.
Moderna is set to deliver 855,600 doses next week and 1,202,400 in the last week of April. A backlog in Moderna's quality assurance process appears to have delayed those shipments by several days, although Fortin said it's possible they'll arrive earlier.
Still no delivery schedule for J&J vaccine
Federal officials still don't have a delivery schedule for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine beyond an expectation that the first shipment will arrive sometime in late April. Johnson & Johnson's one-shot vaccine received Health Canada's approval a month ago and Canada has pre-ordered 10 million doses.
As for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, 1.4 million doses from the United States were delivered last Saturday to provinces. The remaining 100,000 from a loan of 1.5 million from the U.S. will arrive this week, Fortin said.
Another million AstraZeneca doses from the U.S. are expected by the end of June, said Joelle Paquette, a top official with Public Services and Procurement Canada.
Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said more than seven million doses have been administered across the country.
Eighty-one per cent of people 80 years of age or older have received their first doses and 10 per cent have received their second doses, Njoo said. Among those 70 to 79 years of age, 53 per cent have received their first dose and two per cent have received their second.
WATCH: Deputy chief public health officer is asked when vaccinated Canadians will see their lives change
Njoo said Canadians still need to follow public health measures until more is known about the vaccines and a larger share of the population is fully vaccinated.
When asked when the Public Health Agency of Canada will issue guidance on the sorts of activities that vaccinated people can take part in, Njoo said that there is no one-size-fits-all approach because the science on the vaccines' effectiveness is still evolving.
Njoo said even vaccines with 90 per cent effectiveness can leave 10 out of 100 fully-vaccinated people at risk of getting infected and transmitting to others.
"That's the reason why we still talk about the fact that even if you get vaccinated one or two doses, it's not a free-for-all in terms of you can do what you want," said Njoo. "Because there's still that possibility that you aren't protected individually at a population level and you could transmit it or get infected yourself."
Njoo said there's some uncertainty over whether each vaccine is effective against dangerous coronavirus variants — such as the B117 variant first identified in the United Kingdom that has surged in many parts of Canada — and to what extent vaccines prevent asymptomatic transmission.
He said local context will also determine whether it's safe to begin relaxing public health measures, such as those that ban mass gatherings and household mixing.
"With all of these factors at play, I don't think it's as straightforward as giving guidance to people that yes you can do this or you cannot do that," said Njoo.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines on March 8 for fully vaccinated individuals, saying they can safely meet indoors without masks or physically distancing with others who have received both shots.
The CDC also said those who have had both shots can visit with unvaccinated people from a single other household who are at "low risk for severe COVID-19," and can skip quarantine and testing if exposed to COVID-19 without showing symptoms.
But unlike Canada, the U.S. hasn't delayed second doses by up to four months.