How Canada turned its Covid-19 vaccination programme around

At the beginning of April, only 13% of Canadians had received a first dose but number now is approaching 70%

Humber River Hospital doctor Agarwal Seema administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic planned for and organized by the Latino community, an ethno-racial group more at risk of hospitalization from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) according to city of Toronto data, in Toronto, Canada May 14, 2021. Picture taken May 14, 2021.REUTERS/Carlos Osorio
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On July 6, Debby Fullerton will be able to hold her grandson Noah for the first time in over a year and a half.

Like many others around the world, the pandemic has robbed the 69-year-old grandmother from the Canadian province of New Brunswick of precious family time and relegated her and Noah’s interactions to a six-inch screen.

“My gosh, I'm so excited,” said Ms Fullerton. “I had a few nights that I didn't have great sleep because I was so excited that this is going to finally happen. It's beyond words; I just can't wait.”

Ms Fullerton received her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine in mid-April. Her second shot, which she said is likely to be from Moderna, has been scheduled for June 30.

In early March, when Ms Fullerton first spoke to The National, only 1.9 million Canadians had received a first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Supply shortages in Europe and Canada’s inability to produce the vaccine in-house left the country at the mercy of others.

“The government never made any attempt, as far as I can see, or any serious attempt to get domestically produced vaccines,” said Joel Lexchin, professor emeritus of the faculty of health at York University in Toronto.

While its neighbour to the south raced out of the gate putting millions of shots into its citizens’ arms every day, Canadians were stuck in their homes with little idea of when it might be their turn.

In an attempt to offset its inability to produce the vaccine, Canada made deals with seven different manufacturers, ordering more doses per capita than any other country in the world.

To date, Canada has spent more than CAD$1 billion (about $810,000) to secure access to 400 million doses of vaccine - enough to fully inoculate the country five times over.

But in the beginning, that wasn’t enough.

"Canada's ability to acquire vaccines or to get vaccines that it had paid for initially was very slow," Dr Lexchin told The National.

Researchers and health professionals called the early distribution programme a disaster.

Debby Fullerton holds grandson, Noah, before they were separated by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Courtesy Debby Fullerton

In March, Ms Fullerton thought the best she could hope for was to receive her first shot in July and her second sometime in autumn.

But Canada’s sputtering vaccination programme has finally found traction thanks to improved supply.

As of June 16, the country had distributed more than 34 million doses of vaccine and about 70 per cent of eligible Canadians have received a first dose, putting Canada near the very top of the world in terms of vaccinations.

“It's fantastic, given where we were,” said Dr Jillian Kohler, professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, whose research focuses on fair access to essential medicines. “The uptake has been tremendous.”

The national strategy has been to provide as many Canadians as possible with a first shot, which means delaying second doses by up to several months.

The strategy has won admirers around the world.

“Oh, Canada. Your aggressive first-dose vaccination strategy is looking good,” tweeted Eric Topol, an American physician and scientist.

But there are still concerns surrounding the country’s handling of the vaccination programme.

"It's almost like every day, the eligibility, the policy directions change," Dr Kohler told The National. "It's very hard to have faith in the credibility of the government."

What is clear, though, is Canadians have a huge appetite for the vaccine.

Unlike the US, which has seen vaccination efforts stall with around 51 per cent of the population partially vaccinated and 45 per cent fully vaccinated, Canadians continue to race to be vaccinated.

“We don't see the level of vaccine hesitancy that we're seeing in some other countries,” said Dr Lexchin.

He attributes that in part to the country's ability to keep politics out of the process.

“You don't see any major party leader in Canada saying, ‘Don't get a vaccine’, federally or provincially,” he said. “Even the right-wing ones, like Jason Kenney in Alberta, are in favour of vaccines. So, you don't see that kind of vaccine hesitancy really tied to political ideology the way you do in the US.”

The rise in vaccinations has come as welcome news to many after a brutal spring.

In April, before vaccination efforts were beginning to gain steam, the country was hit by a massive third wave of Covid-19, with about 10,000 new cases reported per day. Now, that number is comfortably below 1,000.

And Canadians like Ms Fullerton can start to plan their long-awaited reunions.

She is already busy cooking up plans for a lobster dinner, a Canadian maritime specialty, for when her daughter and son-in-law, who live 4,500 kilometres away in Edmonton, Alberta, arrive.

But most importantly, she will be able to hug her grandson Noah for the first time since he was a few weeks old in January 2020.