With 10 million doses of the one-shot vaccine on order, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today Canadian officials are closely monitoring the decision by U.S. health authorities to pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson product.
Injections of that vaccine came to a halt this morning after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) jointly recommended a stoppage following reports of very rare blood clotting in six patients.
While 6.8 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered in the U.S. — the vast majority with mild or no side effects — the federal agencies said they wanted state and local officials to stop administering the shot until the FDA's immunization advisory committee could meet to review the blood clotting data to better understand any potential risks.
The clots occurred in veins that drain blood from the brain and occurred together with low platelets. All six cases were in women between the ages of 18 and 48.
"We're closely monitoring what's happening in the U.S. We can assure everyone that Health Canada will, every step of the way, put the health of Canadians first and foremost around any decisions we make around the distribution of the vaccine," Trudeau said.
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Speaking to reporters on a teleconference Tuesday, Dr. Peter Marks, the director of the FDA Center for Biologics, said the reports appear similar to a rare type of clotting disorder that European authorities say could be linked to another COVID-19 vaccine not yet cleared in the U.S., from AstraZeneca.
Late last month, Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended provinces pause the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on those under the age of 55 because of clotting-related safety concerns.
Dr. Shelley Deeks, the vice-chair of NACI, said that with the "substantial uncertainty" around cases of vaccine-induced thrombocytopenia (VIPIT) in people with low platelets, the committee was recommending the suspension of shots in younger people as a "precautionary measure."
On Tuesday, Canada reported its first case of this type of clotting following immunization.
A person from Quebec who was vaccinated with a Serum Institute of India-made shot "is at home now recovering," the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said in a statement. The vaccine used on this patient is biologically identical to the AstraZeneca vaccine but is manufactured under different conditions under the name Covishield.
"Reports of blood clots with low platelets in people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are very rare and the report of this case shows that Canada's vaccine safety monitoring system works," the agency said in a statement.
"Since these rare adverse events were first reported in early March 2021 in Europe, Health Canada has been working with international regulators to review data and evidence as it becomes available."
Both the J&J and AstraZeneca products are viral vector load vaccines. There have been no reports of any post-vaccination clots in people who have received the Pfizer or Moderna shots, which are based on mRNA technology.
While Health Canada officials approved the J&J shot for use in Canada last month, the New Jersey-based company has made no deliveries to Canada yet; it's still working to fulfil its U.S. contractual obligations.
Trudeau said Canada is still expecting the first batch of J&J shots by month's end.
He said Canada's immunization campaign can continue at its current pace even if there are significant delays in deploying the J&J shot because deliveries of the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca products are more consistent now and 44 million doses of those three vaccines will be on hand by the end of June.
"We signed deals with a large range of potential vaccine makers because we didn't know which ones would be most effective, which ones would arrive early. That's why Canadians are well served," he said. "It's a good thing that we have such a variety of contracts."
WATCH: Vaccine expert says pausing J&J will allow health officials to 'fine tune' who gets the vaccine based on risk
'Slow and confused rollout'
Speaking in question period, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Canada's vaccination campaign is getting bad press around the world, pointing to a recent CNN report that said vaccine procurement has been "a real failure from the Trudeau government."
According to CDC data, 192 million shots have been administered so far in the U.S., nearly 23 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated and 37 per cent of all Americans have received at least one shot.
In Canada, 8.5 million shots have been administered and 20.2 per cent of all Canadians have received one dose.
"Will the prime minister admit that his failure to secure sufficient vaccines is leading to a catastrophic third wave?" O'Toole said, referring to the mounting caseloads in many provinces.
O'Toole said the "slow and confused rollout" in Canada means that our country has now surpassed the U.S. in terms of the number of new cases per capita, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
"It's important that we stay grounded in the facts in this situation," Trudeau said in response. "Canada is actually third in the G20 in terms of vaccines delivered to people and we're going to continue to work even harder to get more vaccines into Canada, and into arms even faster," Trudeau said.