The Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine Entails More than you Think

3 minute read

The pandemic has created a lot of anxiety for Canadians about their safety, and with that an eagerness for the country to develop a successful COVID-19 vaccine. The race to develop a vaccine has increased pressure on governments to dedicate resources to this cause, at a time when governments are already financially stretched. 

The political factors around vaccines and therapeutic treatments go far beyond development, and will have longer-term consequences even after a successful vaccine candidate has been developed. As vaccine access gets closer, Canada’s leaders will have to make crucial decisions. This will include deciding who gets the vaccine first, how Canadians will access this vaccine and establishing what Canada’s role will be in providing developing countries with vaccine access. 

There are currently over 150 vaccines for COVID-19 in development around the world, and the federal government has committed $1 billion to six different companies working on research and development. This investment will secure millions of doses for Canadians once successful vaccines are developed. The companies that the government has invested in agreements with are Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, Sanofi/GSK, AstraZeneca and Novavax and Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson – which has been temporarily stalled due to medical complications in their trial. Currently, ten vaccine candidates worldwide have entered into Phase 3 of clinical trials, where they are being tested on hundreds of volunteers.

Progress is also being made domestically. On Friday, the Prime Minister announced over $200M for vaccine research for two Canadian companies, based in Quebec and British Columbia. Further investments on vaccines and therapeutic treatments are also expected in the near future.

With news on vaccine progress every day, Canadian leaders are beginning to answer the burning questions on what comes next. The order of who gets access to a vaccine first is among the most asked questions Canadians have right now. B.C.’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, says it may not be as simple as healthcare workers, seniors and vulnerable Canadians to take precedence. The decision could come down to identifying who the first available vaccine may be best for, as there may be multiple vaccines to cater to the unique needs of the Canadian population. 

The federal government will also have to articulate Canada’s role in providing the vaccines to countries with less resources, as agreed upon within the WHO’s COVAX program. This program aims to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines and guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.

In Ottawa, opposition parties have been critical of the federal government’s leadership on vaccine development. Conservative Party Leader, Erin O’Toole, recently expressed concern on the timelines by saying “we are falling well behind our allies and securing future COVID-19 vaccines and approving and rolling out rapid testing,” while NDP Leader, Jagment Singh, has begun challenging the future vaccine’s access by urging it to be free for all Canadians.

Across the country, the provinces and territories will have as much – or arguably, more pressure – than the federal government when a vaccine is available. Traditionally, provinces and territories handle the majority of vaccine procurement along with all distribution. However, the dynamics around a COVID-19 vaccine will require a much closer collaboration between Trudeau and the Premiers; purchasing agreements are federal jurisdiction, while administration of the vaccine will fall to the provinces. Canada’s Premier’s have formally met with the Prime Minister over twenty times since the pandemic began, however, this communication is only expected to ramp up as vaccine trials progress and each province decides on other crucial elements related to COVID-19, such as access to rapid testing.

Pressure on politicians to act in the areas of vaccine development and procurement will continue to rise in the coming months. The federal government, provinces and even opposition parties will need to work closely together to answer these big questions and make sure Canada gets this next phase of the pandemic response right. 

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