Feds meeting with provinces to strategize on scaling up domestic vaccine capacity: LeBlanc

OTTAWA — Amid claims the federal government has blocked provinces from buying their own COVID-19 vaccine supplies, Ottawa will soon reach out to strategize how they can work together to boost Canada’s domestic manufacturing capacity, says Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc.

The meeting is set to happen in “the coming days,” and is being led by LeBlanc and Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Francois-Philippe Champagne.

In an interview on CTV’s Question Period, LeBlanc — whose office would not confirm precisely when the call is set to happen — said the discussion will “look at how we can collaborate with provinces on building up our biomanufacturing capacity in Canada.”

“We share that concern with all the provinces and want to work with them to do whatever we can, as quickly as we can, to build up that capacity,” he said.

This comes after Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister made headlines this week after deciding to buy 2 million doses from the Alberta-based company Providence Therapeutics. That company’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate is currently in clinical trials, and has not yet submitted data to Health Canada for review.

Pallister told CTV’s Question Period the move was “insurance” in case the federal procurement ran into further hiccups, or to have an option for the future. He also claimed that Manitoba was “blocked” from pursuing additional vaccines from any of the firms that already have deals with the federal government.

“The major vaccine producers will not sign contracts with the provincial governments, they’re precluded from doing so by their agreements with the feds,” Pallister said.

LeBlanc denied the federal government blocked the provinces from signing their own deals. He also noted the federal government has put money into supporting the development of potential Canadian vaccines.

PROVINCIAL CONTRACTS?

Offering to provide evidence of Pallister’s comments, the premier’s office provided CTV’s Question Period with copies of emails, including from AstraZeneca and Moderna, as well as from provincial staff relaying conversations with Janssen, the maker of Johnson & Johnson.

The portions of emails reviewed were in response to the province’s inquiries about unique deals, and the pharmaceutical companies indicated generally that they were opting to deal with the federal government to fulfil Canada’s requests.

Clarifying further in an email to CTV’s Question Period, AstraZeneca’s director of corporate communications Carlo Mastrangelo said the agreement for 20 million doses that Canada signed with that company in September “does not preclude provincial contracts.”

“We’ve said all along that provinces are obviously sovereign orders of government under our constitution and they can make whatever business arrangements they want with any of these global pharmaceutical companies. We think that as a country we had a better chance and a better bargaining position to get as many doses as quickly as we can,” said LeBlanc.

“If provinces want to go on their own and contact these companies, they’re obviously free to do so.”

PLANNING TO HELP WITH ‘BIG LIFT’

While the push to set up domestic capacity continues, the current national vaccine rollout—based exclusively on internationally supplied shots—is ramping up.

With much larger shipments of vaccines set to arrive over the coming weeks, increasing considerably in April and beyond, LeBlanc said the federal government is currently working on plans to help the provinces administer the coming surge of doses.

“Maj.-Gen. [Dany] Fortin and his colleagues have been working in fact this week in tabletop exercises, rehearsals, similar to what was done in December, but focusing on the April-May window,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc said Fortin is calling it “the big lift.”

“We’re obviously there to support provinces and territories and with equipment, with supplies, with logistical support, and that planning is going on,” he said, adding that the provinces and territories will be prepared to “very quickly and effectively deploy these vaccines.”

VACCINE ‘MENU’? UP TO PROVINCES

Asked if additional vaccines become approved whether citizens will have the ability to choose which doses they sign up to receive, LeBlanc said that’s a decision left up to each province and territory.

“The provinces are the ones that are administering these various vaccines to their different populations and a sequence that they decide. And if some provinces decide to give people a menu, and others don’t, then that’ll be their decision,” he said.

“What we’re doing is getting as quickly as we can, as many vaccines as we can to the provinces and territories, and they’ll decide how best to deploy them.”

With files from CTV News’ Evan Solomon, Ian Wood, and Noah Richardson.

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