Trudeau turns to the military to help with COVID-19 vaccine distribution

·6 min read
Trudeau turns to the military to help with COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today announced that the federal government has chosen a senior military commander to lead its COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort as the country prepares for a massive inoculation campaign.

Trudeau said Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the current chief of staff to the Canadian Joint Operations Command and a former commander of the NATO mission in Iraq, will head up vaccine logistics and operations within a new branch of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

Beyond his extensive overseas service, Fortin also was involved in planning the CAF missions in pandemic-hit long-term care homes over the summer. The harrowing reports the soldiers produced after working in those homes caused the federal government to draft new directives on seniors' care.

Trudeau said the government is creating a new military-supported hub within PHAC — the National Operations Centre — to help coordinate the deployment of millions of vaccine doses over the coming months.

"Canada is well prepared for large-scale rollouts of vaccines, but this will be the biggest immunization in the history of the country. We must reach everyone who wants a vaccine, no matter where they live," Trudeau said.

Trudeau said the armed forces will assist in planning for and tackling pressing challenges, such as the cold-storage requirements for the promising Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The military also will help Ottawa get shots to some Indigenous and rural communities where health care services are limited at the best of times.

"This will be a major effort but together, Canada can, and will, do this," Trudeau said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has also picked a military leader — Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's former top soldier and chief of defence staff (CDS) — to lead similar vaccine efforts in the province.

While the federal government is procuring the drug, it will be up to the provinces and territories to get shots into the arms of Canadians. Hillier said that, despite massive uncertainties about possible delivery times, he's aiming to have some sort of distribution structure in place by Dec. 31.

Hillier said Fortin's appointment is a welcome development because the general has the know-how to execute a complicated rollout.

"He is the most incredible leader. I could not praise him enough. I'm so absolutely delighted he's commanding the task force. We're blessed as a nation to have him" Hillier said, praising Fortin's efforts in the war in the Afghanistan.

The U.S. tapped a retired four star general, Gen. Gustave Perna, in May to lead Operation Warp Speed — a project to develop a vaccine, manufacture it in large quantities and push it out into communities.

The U.S. armed forces, working with pharmaceutical distribution giant McKesson and shippers like FedEx, will distribute millions of Pfizer vaccines doses to all 50 U.S. states the day after that product gets the necessary approvals from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is expected to happen on Dec. 10.

As many as 20 million Americans are expected to be vaccinated in December, with 30 million more Americans being vaccinated in every subsequent month.

Majority of Canadians to be vaccinated by September: Trudeau

The government has been criticized by the opposition, provincial leaders and some public health experts for offering few details about its plans to roll out a vaccine once Health Canada gives one the green light.

The government also has had to grapple with the fact that Canada seems to be falling behind other developed countries on vaccine delivery timelines.

When asked why he didn't appoint a military liaison earlier, when the U.S. has had one in place for months, Trudeau said his government is doing "its very best" and work on the distribution plan has been ongoing for some time.

"I can understand the eagerness with which people want to know when this will be over, when we're going to get vaccines. What we can say is we're going to work extremely hard to deliver as quickly and as safely as possible," Trudeau said. "We're on this and we're delivering."

Trudeau said Canada is on track to vaccinate nearly every person that wants a shot by September 2021.

WATCH: Trudeau is asked when Canadians will receive the COVID-19 vaccine

Health Canada is expected to give approvals to the Pfizer product at roughly the same time the United States does. "We're on track to make decisions on similar timelines," said Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical adviser at Health Canada.

Sharma said her department has been reviewing clinical trial data on a rolling basis since October 9. The rolling review process — a policy shift implemented because of the urgency of this pandemic — allows drug makers to bypass the lengthy timelines they normally face when launching a new vaccine.

Canada is largely beholden to Pfizer manufacturing plants in the U.S. and abroad for its supply of the vaccine because our country doesn't have the capacity to produce it. The vaccine uses groundbreaking messenger RNA technology, or mRNA, which essentially directs cells in the body to make proteins to prevent or fight disease.

The federal government didn't secure domestic manufacturing rights for the AstraZeneca product, which was co-developed by scientists at Oxford University. That vaccine, which uses a more traditional vaccination platform, is easier to produce.

Other countries — including Western nations like Germany, France and Italy and middle-income countries like Mexico and Argentina — will produce the vaccine domestically.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand, a former contract law professor, said the government considered manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine here in Canada but ultimately decided that the "quickest path" to a vaccine would be through international supply chains. Some scientists are now raising red flags about that vaccine's clinical trial results.

Anand said her department is in daily contact with Pfizer and the six other drug companies with which the government signed agreements for vaccines.

"I will personally make sure we have vaccines in place in Canada once Health Canada has provided its regulatory approval," Anand told reporters at a COVID-19 briefing.

"Once we have Health Canada approvals, deliveries will start as soon as possible," she said.

WATCH: Anand reassures Canadians about the arrival of vaccines

Arianne Reza, an assistant deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement Canada, said she expects vaccines will be available in the "first quarter of 2021."

"The minute regulatory approval comes through, they will be ready to go quite quickly with supply and initial shipments," she said.

If all goes well, and if U.S. pharmaceutical giants are able to meet delivery timelines, PHAC has said as many as six million doses could be deployed in the first three months of 2021. Each patient will need two doses of Pfizer's vaccine.

All told, Canada has secured options for 414 million doses of the various vaccines under development.

Watch: Sajjan on how the Forces will help Canadians get the COVID-19 vaccine: