The federal government has no supply of Johnson & Johnson's single-shot Janssen COVID-19 vaccine to share with the provinces, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said today.
Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia have requested tens of thousands of doses of the vaccine as a way of increasing vaccine uptake. Health Canada has approved the viral vector vaccine but says it is not as effective as its mRNA vaccine equivalents from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
In a news release earlier this week, Premier Jason Kenney said some Albertans in areas of low vaccine uptake have expressed a preference for the Janssen vaccine. The Alberta government has requested 20,000 doses from the federal government.
Hajdu told a news conference today the federal government would be happy to fulfil the request but doesn't have the doses to provide.
"Currently we don't have usable doses on hand, and so we're looking for additional doses so that we can get them very quickly to the provinces and territories," she said.
In a statement to CBC News, federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand's office confirmed that Ottawa has no supply of the single-shot vaccine.
"We do not have Janssen vaccine doses in Canada and we are working to support the people of Alberta," the statement reads.
Some 300,000 doses of the Janssen vaccine were shipped to Canada in late April. Health Canada rejected them after a weeks-long investigation because of ongoing concerns about the third-party manufacturer of these shots, a Maryland-based company called Emergent.
Workers at the company's Baltimore plant inadvertently ruined some 15 million doses of this vaccine by mixing up ingredients intended for another product — the shot made by AstraZeneca.
Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical adviser at Health Canada, said concerns about manufacturing quality could affect new shipments to Canada.
"There are some sites that still have some issues around quality and quality manufacturing," she said. "We wanted to make sure the level of safety and effectiveness of the vaccine meets what was authorized."
While the vaccine has not been administered yet in Canada, just over 15 million Americans have received a dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the summer, the government — citing in part a lack of demand from the provinces — said it had no plans for additional shipments of the vaccine.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, stressed that mRNA vaccines are safe.
She added that there is some evidence from other countries that two doses of the Janssen vaccine are more effective than one, even though it is approved in Canada as a single-dose vaccine.
"I think for individuals who are thinking about this as a one-dose vaccine, more information is likely to be forthcoming in the near future on that," she said.
In August, the federal government announced its intention to donate up to 10 million doses of the Janssen vaccine to poorer countries.
Tam said that's why the federal government would like to have more clarity from provinces on the number of Janssen doses they think they'll need.
"One thing we need from the provinces is a good estimation of the amount that is required," she said. "We do not want to waste any vaccines that could help other countries in the world ... and we're waiting for provinces to get back to us on that front."
Pill treatment awaiting approval
Merck & Co announced Friday that its COVID-19 pill, called molnupiravir, has shown great effectiveness in reducing hospitalizations and deaths in COVID-19 patients. Patients who took the drug within five days of showing COVID-19 symptoms faced roughly half the risk of ending up in hospital or dying as did members of a control group.
The company said it will soon ask health officials to authorize its use. Health Canada has been reviewing data on the drug since August. If approved, it would be the first authorized COVID-19 therapy which does not involve needles or IVs.
WATCH | Public Health Agency of Canada reviewing proposal to use new antiviral drug against COVID-19
Sharma said that approval of the drug is likely months away.
"It will be held to the standards of all of our reviews," she said. "We'll authorize it if it meets the standard."
Rates of severe illness increasing, health officials say
Canada has averaged 4,350 new cases of COVID-19 per day over the last week, Tam said.
There's high regional variability in COVID-19 caseloads across the country, she said, but the overall number is on a stable trajectory.
What isn't, she added, is rates of severe illness — they've shot up as the more infectious and deadly delta variant continues to spread. An average of more than 2,400 COVID-19 patients are being treated in hospital daily, including around 800 patients in intensive care.
Newly announced vaccine mandates in some provinces, such as Alberta, have boosted rates of vaccination, Tam said.
"These vaccine requirements in provinces seem to have nudged people to take the vaccine," Tam said.
She added that the overwhelming majority of severe illness cases continue to be among the unvaccinated.