OTTAWA — Canada's vaccination effort against COVID-19 has pulled even with the United States in one of the key markers in the race to herd immunity and is closing in fast on a status as one of the top 10 most vaccinated countries in the world.
Globally Canada now sits in the top 15 among nations for the share of the population with at least one dose of vaccine — a marked change from the 42nd place it held in early March.
But any celebration of the achievement is muted for some health professionals who see Canada pulling ahead at the expense of much of the world.
As of Thursday morning Canada had given at least one dose to 18.1 million people, about 47.6 per cent of the population, tying the United States. Canada will pull into the lead by day's end, now vaccinating people 1.8 times faster than the U.S.
Canada is still well behind on second doses — down in about 64th place globally with only four per cent of the population fully vaccinated now. The U.S. has fully vaccinated 37.5 per cent.
University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe said Canada's demand continues to be very strong, boding well for the goal to get at least 75 per cent of the population vaccinated.
"Canada is in this situation where our pace of vaccination is accelerating, past the point where it started to sharply decelerate in the United States," he said.
Tombe said Canada's pace is now among the fastest in the world, and is on track to go ahead of Chile and Hungary next week, the United Kingdom in early June and Israel before Canada Day.
Canada will get half the population vaccinated with one dose this weekend, and to the magic 75 per cent of people over 12 by the third week of June. That's the number where health officials say restrictions can start to gradually be lifted.
Procurement Minister Anita Anand seems loathe to do any celebratory dance about the milestones, repeating over and over that her focus is only on keeping the pressure on vaccine suppliers to fulfil their contracts in a world where demand is well higher than the available supply.
"I still feel the responsibility weighing very heavily on my shoulders to ensure that we have enough vaccine for all Canadians who want it to be vaccinated," she said.
Still, Anand said it "does feel a little surreal" to see so many Canadians now vaccinated.
Canada's inability to produce COVID-19 vaccines at home has been a sore spot for the government's critics, and the biggest barrier to Canada's vaccine efforts at the start.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the latest numbers are "encouraging" but the vaccine plan is still a "failure" by the government.
“From the beginning, the Liberals made some really key mistakes," he said. "They didn’t create the capacity to produce the vaccine in Canada."
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner has been one of the loudest critics of the federal vaccine procurement and said there are still a lot of issues to overcome.
Communications to Canadians about what vaccine to get, the safety issues that arose around the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots and then confusing messaging about who should get that vaccine have been harmful, said Rempel Garner.
People now want to know when they'll get their second dose, what kind of dose it will be, and when they can start having normal lives again, information that is not forthcoming from Ottawa, she said.
"In spite of all these communication errors, and in spite of the lack of direction on what vaccinated persons can do, I am encouraged by the fact we're seeing an uptake in vaccinations," she said.
"I think that's a very good sign."
Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a critical care pediatric specialist in Vancouver with a research focus on pandemic preparedness, said he gives Canada's vaccine effort a D-minus, but not because Canadians aren't getting vaccinated fast enough.
It's because Canada is vaccinating its own and leaving much of the world to wait months, if not years to do so themselves.
He said his grade it would be an F if Canada hadn't donated $220 million to help the global-vaccine sharing alliance known as COVAX.
The idea of COVAX was that the world would help vaccinate itself as a whole, pooling vaccines for an equitable global distribution. But Canada donated to COVAX and also signed private deals to get almost 10 doses of vaccine for every Canadian.
Last week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, urged wealthy countries to delay vaccinating their youngest — and least vulnerable citizens — and send doses to help vaccinate vulnerable and high-risk workers in low-income countries.
Canada is already vaccinating kids as young as 12 in many provinces.
Murthy said the political pressure to keep up with the U.S. or the U.K. pushed Canada to abandon any pretence that it would be a good global citizen on vaccines.
"That impatience to get Canadians vaccinated ... I think it's led to where we are now where politicians felt like they had to steal all the doses from around the world so that they can satisfy those Canadians," he said. "When really what they should have done is shown leadership from the very beginning."
Murthy said it's not too late for Canada to step up and start donating doses today. Canada has said it will donate doses eventually but has provided no timeline of when or how many.
Globally, 723 million people have been vaccinated so far, but only three per cent of them live in Africa, and nine per cent in South America, which together account for one-quarter of the world's population.
Conversely Europe and North America, which account for less than one-fifth of the global population, are home to 56 per cent of the people vaccinated to date.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2021.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press