OTTAWA — Canada doesn’t have the manufacturing capacity to quickly mass produce a COVID-19 vaccine and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says previous Conservatives governments are partly to blame.
That was the tenor of the debate in the House of Commons Wednesday, a day after Trudeau acknowledged in a televised briefing outside his home that Canadians could see American, British, and German citizens get vaccines first when one becomes available.
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner pressed for clarity on the deals the federal government has signed to secure millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines, asking if those agreements give Canada the right to manufacture its own supply.
“It doesn’t matter what portfolio of vaccines that we have if Canadians can’t get it until 2030,” Rempel Garner said, evoking a date a decade away after the prime minister and Ontario’s premier have said they expect doses to become available in early 2021.
Watch: Trudeau says Conservatives to blame for vaccine manufacturing decline. Story continues below video.
Trudeau responded: “allow me to reassure anyone who has listened to or might tend to believe anything the opposite members just said.”
Canada has signed vaccine delivery contracts for 2021 for “tens of millions of doses,” he said. “We know how important it is to deliver for them quickly.”
Rempel Garner, displeased with the prime minister’s response, called the prelude to his answer “sexist.”
“Whenever we ask him direct questions and he can’t answer, the first thing he does is impugn the character of strong women and that’s wrong and that’s sexist,” she said.
Trudeau then listed the names of pharmaceutical companies that closed their manufacturing operations in Canada under the previous Conservative government.
“The member opposite was asking what happened to domestic manufacturing in Canada,” Trudeau said. “The Conservative government happened to domestic manufacturing.”
He pointed out how AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers, Johnson & Johnson, Merck’s, GSK, and Sanofi either closed their operations or announced layoffs between 2007 and 2011.
Attention over the country’s diminished vaccine manufacturing capabilities prompted Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet to voice his concerns about the lack of a firm timeline for when a COVID-19 vaccine will be available in Canada.
The prime minister said the federal government was focused on delivering emergency income support to Canadians and personal protective equipment to essential workers in the first wave of the pandemic.
Blanchet, unswayed, said in French that he was “not interested in justifications for failures, more interested in solutions.”
The Bloc leader repeated Rempel Garner’s question, probing for details if the vaccine deals the federal government signed include a clause to prevent domestic production. Trudeau did not provide an answer, instead pledged his government will continue to work with experts to secure necessary vaccines.
Promising news about potential COVID-19 vaccines, such as Oxford University’s collaboration with AstraZeneca this week, has shifted political debate to when doses will be available and to whom first.
In Canada, renewed attention has been drawn to the country’s biotech industry. There is manufacturing capacity in Canada, but the facilities and machines are designed to fulfill pre-existing contracts for vaccines for influenza, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases.
Unlike the process for producing influenza vaccines, which requires the use of eggs or cells to grow antigens, the process for COVID-19 is more complicated.
Because the vaccines for the novel coronavirus are messenger RNA vaccines, chemicals need to be catalyzed in a special tube or tank for their production — which is a technology that is limited in Canada, let alone the world.
In August, $126 million was announced for a new bio-manufacturing facility in Montreal, a project that is “still in construction,” the prime minister said.
The federal government announced $173 million in funding for Medicago, a Quebec City-based company developing a plant-based COVID-19 vaccine, toward the construction of a manufacturing facility in the city. A deal was also signed to secure 76 million doses of its vaccine.
The Medicago funding was announced last month but Conservative MP James Cumming wanted answers for why the government gave the company money to build a facility “and then state we don’t have any production capacity.”
Trudeau again pointed his finger in the past, saying his government has made investments to “restore Canada’s bio manufacturing capacities after 10 years of Conservative government saw most of the manufacturers leave this country.”
The Liberal government will continue to invest in science and research, he said, “despite the years of neglect by the previous government.”