New EU export restrictions unlikely to hit Canada's COVID-19 supplies, feds say

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TORONTO — Concerns about possible disruptions to Canada's COVID-19 vaccine supply emerged Wednesday as the prime minister played down any immediate threat to shipments expected in the coming weeks.

To protect its own supplies, the European Union, a major vaccine supplier to Canada, put in place export measures to mitigate domestic supply problems amid a surge in new cases.

"The global shortage of supply of COVID-19 vaccine persists and is even increasing in view of the delays of production," the EU said.

Melita Gabric, ambassador-designate for the 27-nation bloc, said the aim was to ensure vaccine producers in Europe honoured their contracts with the EU.

European sources said Canadian shipments require an export authorization but those should be granted as long as they don’t pose a threat to domestic supply.

Further supply concerns were kindled after India halted exports of its Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine citing its own shortages, the Reuters news agency reported.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said the Liberal government needed to roll out a concrete plan to help provinces if supplies are disrupted. Verbal assurances weren't sufficient, she said.

"We still have no guarantees from the prime minister on that issue," Rempell said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons that he, too, was concerned about potential supply disruptions but said he and his government would press the Europe Commission at the "highest levels" to ensure supplies would keep flowing, as it would India.

In the interim, public health authorities on Wednesday reported thousands of new COVID-19 cases on average and 31 deaths daily, The bottom line, the Public Health Agency of Canada said in its latest update, was that people still face a serious risk of contracting the disease.

"Amid increasing case counts, shifting severity trends, and a rising proportion of cases involving variants of concern in heavily impacted areas of Canada, we need to remain vigilant," Dr. Theresa Tam, the country's top public health officer, said in a statement.

Canada's overall infection rate since the pandemic began a year ago is nearing the one-million mark, authorities reported. To date, the virus has killed 22,735 people.

More than 2,140 people were in hospitals with COVID-19 of which 591 needed intensive care.

Ontario reported another 1,571 cases and 10 related deaths on Wednesday, while Quebec saw 783 new infections, with eight more people dying of the disease. One-million vaccine doses have been administered in the province.

Saskatchewan said it would now extend its inoculation program to anyone over age 65. In addition, people aged 50 and older in the Far North can book shots, as can priority health-care workers, the Saskatchewan Health Authority said.

Up to 200 members of the Canadian Armed Forces would deploy to 23 remote Indigenous communities in Manitoba to help with their vaccination efforts, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said. The initiative is to begin next week and run through June.

The situation looked better in Newfoundland and Labrador, which reported just one new case. Starting midnight Saturday, the province will allow households to have a so-called “steady 20” group of consistent contacts.

Given the financial toll anti-pandemic restrictions have had, thousands of hotels, restaurants and other businesses urged Ottawa to extend emergency relief past June 5. Federal wage and rent subsidies must stay in place until the end of the year, the Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses said.

"Our businesses were the first hit by the pandemic, the hardest hit by the closures and will be the last to recover," Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said in a coalition statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press