Trudeau says vaccine supply is in ‘good shape’ even as EU threatens export controls on doses

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to reassure Canadians today that vaccine shots will continue to arrive even as the European Union threatens protectionist measures to limit the export of doses abroad.

The EU is poised to impose export controls on vaccines leaving the 27-member bloc to ensure supply on the continent. The proposal would require companies to seek approval before shipping vaccines to countries like Canada.

“Europe is determined to contribute to this global common good but it also means business,” Ursula von der Leyen, the German president of the European Commission, said in a video statement late Monday.

Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Portage, Mich. Amid uncertainty in the European market, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Canada should pursue shipments from the Michigan facility. (Morry Gash/Pool via AP Photo)

Trudeau was asked this morning for his reaction to the prospect of the EU limiting the number of shots shipped from the Pfizer plant in Puurs, Belgium.

“That will be very disturbing, of course,” Trudeau said in French. “We are communicating with our partners in Europe to make sure the contracts signed by Canada are respected.”

Trudeau said he received assurances this morning from Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, that that company will meet its promised delivery timelines — 230,400 doses are slated to arrive next week.

That doesn’t really mean much, since the company produces its shots in Switzerland and the U.S. states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire — places that would be beyond EU export controls.

The Pfizer product has been the workhorse of the global vaccination effort so far; the company has shipped many more vaccine doses than Moderna, and more often. But deliveries to Canada will grind to a halt this week as a temporary shutdown at Pfizer’s plant in Belgium disrupts its shipments.

“We have from the very beginning worked extremely closely with European partners on vaccines,” Trudeau said.

“The close working relationship gives me assurance that the contracts we’ve signed and the supply chains we’ve established with European manufacturers are in good shape. We will continue, however, to work very, very closely and monitor and ensure Canada gets all the doses we’ve contractually signed for.”

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said she doesn’t think a protectionist push by the EU or others will help the global fight against the pandemic.

“They are slowing down the global response to the pandemic,” she said in French. “This virus doesn’t recognize borders.”

International Trade Minister Mary Ng said she has been in contact with her European counterpart and she’s hoping any export limitations will leave Canada untouched.

“We will continue to work with the EU, just as we have done throughout this pandemic, to ensure our critical medical supply chains remain open,” she said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said it’s time to consider other options as the European market becomes increasingly uncertain.

“The other alternative is to ask our friends south of the border. We’d love to get some vaccines out of Pfizer in Kalamazoo,” Ford said, referring to the company’s plant in Michigan, which is just 220 kilometres from the Windsor-Detroit border crossing.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a statement in Brussels, Belgium on December 24, 2020. (Francisco Seco/Reuters)

The province’s health minister, Christine Elliott, said a EU blockade would put the country in a “very difficult position.”

“If we don’t get it through Belgium, we’re going to be pressing Pfizer and asking the U.S. for access to their Kalamazoo factory. It’s absolutely vital that we get our population vaccinated and in short order,” she said.

While the delivery schedules may fluctuate, the government insists its medium-term targets are more certain.

Trudeau said again today that Canada is expecting four million doses from Pfizer and another two million doses from Moderna by the end of the first quarter — enough to vaccinate some two million Canadians with these two-dose products.

Trudeau said the CEO of Pfizer, Dr. Albert Bourla, has assured him personally that the pharmaceutical company will resume sending vaccine shots to Canada next month. But that promise, made in a phone call last Friday, came before the EU floated the idea of export controls on shipments to countries beyond the bloc.

EU leaders facing criticism over slow rollout

The EU — which approved the Pfizer and Moderna products later than Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom — has been criticized for the slow vaccine rollout in many member countries.

The EU’s medicines agency is expected to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine as early as this week but the company already has said it will deliver fewer doses than originally planned to the EU.

The EU signed a deal in August for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million more. The EU had hoped that, as soon as approval was given, delivery would start straight away, but AstraZeneca has said “reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain” will result in fewer doses than expected.

EU political leaders say they are concerned the companies are cutting supplies intended for EU countries in order to sell doses to other nations at higher prices. AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company headquartered in Cambridge, England, has delivered millions of shots to the U.K., which left the EU last year.

Stella Kyriakides, the European commissioner for health and food safety, said the body wants to put in place a “export transparency mechanism” in the coming days — a regime that would force companies like Pfizer (which makes vaccines destined for Canada in Belgium) and AstraZeneca to inform the body of vaccine shipments abroad.

The commissioner said the EU has helped to finance the rapid development and production of vaccines — the body has spent roughly $4.1 billion on such efforts — and it wants what it ordered.

“In the future, all companies producing vaccines against COVID-19 in the EU will have to provide early notification whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries,” Kyriakides said at a press conference in Brussels Monday.

“The European Union will take any action required to protect its citizens and rights,” she said.

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