12/03/2020 08:57 EST | Updated 12/03/2020 16:14 EST

Military Prepped To Distribute Vaccine As Soon As 1st Doses Ready

Gen. Jonathan Vance says Canada is "as well poised as any country" to handle the distribution.

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Canadian Army General Jonathan Vance is seen here, welcomed by Turkish Chief of General Staff Yasar Guler with an official ceremony in Ankara, Turkey on April 29, 2019.

OTTAWA — Federal and provincial governments will stage a dress rehearsal Monday to test the complex plan to get precious COVID-19 vaccines distributed to every corner of Canada.

Maj. Gen. Dany Fortin, who was named last week to lead the Canadian military’s role in the vaccine distribution process, says the dry run is intended to get everyone involved comfortable with the intense requirements of distributing a vaccine that has to be kept below -70 C at all times.

“We are hard at it in the next couple of weeks to ensure that we are ready,” said Fortin. “I kind of like the idea of being ready before the Christmas time-frame so we are certain to be ready when it comes in January.”

The first vaccine expected to get approval in Canada is from Pfizer and BioNTech and has to be kept at frigid temperatures until used.

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The Conservatives say Canadians need, and deserve, to know how the government is setting up a COVID-19 vaccine distribution network.

Health Canada officials said Thursday the Pfizer approval is imminent with just a few documents left to receive from the company, including which lots of vaccine Canada will get. Deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo said Thursday he fully expects the decision to be a yes.

On Wednesday, the United Kingdom became the first, and so far only, country to approve Pfizer’s vaccine. The United States is expected to follow on Dec. 10.

The second vaccine in line for approval in Canada is from Moderna. It uses a similar messenger RNA technology but can survive in freezers that get down to only -20 C.

The supply will initially be limited to about three million people. Njoo said they are targeting priority groups that will most benefit from an earlier vaccine while reducing the spread of the virus.

“In a country as geographically large and diverse as ours, we are facing some logistical complexities,” he said, including reaching remote communities and co-ordinating between various levels of government.

Vaccines will be stored differently

The difference means the two vaccines will be shipped and stored differently, requiring two separate logistical processes. Fortin said Pfizer will ship the doses directly to provinces and territories.

There are 14 identified delivery sites for Pfizer.

Moderna will deliver its vaccine to one national delivery site, and Canada is about to contract with a private logistics supplier to then move the doses to the provinces as required.

Fortin said the 14 Pfizer delivery points will be equipped and ready for vaccines to arrive by Dec. 14. The logistics contract for Moderna will be in place no later than Dec.15, he said.

Fortin said there have been “tabletop” exercises to plan the distribution over the last weeks, including one on Wednesday that involved more than 150 people from all 13 provinces and territories, and eight federal departments and agencies.

The Canadian Armed Forces received formal orders last week to start planning for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, though the military’s top commander says preparations have been underway for longer.

Fortin said the military has been involved on some level since the spring.

A planning directive issued last week by chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance notes the possibility of having to pick up COVID-19 vaccine doses from the United States and Europe on short notice, and outlines concerns the military will be asked to help with distribution while also responding to floods and other emergencies.

Gen. Vance acknowledged the potential challenge posed by spring flood season coinciding with a potential surge in COVID-19 cases and efforts to get vaccines to Canadians most at risk of the illness. Flooded homes in Gatineau, Quebec are seen here, on May 11, 2017. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada has established a national operations centre to run the vaccine distribution but the Canadian Armed Forces will play a significant role under what Vance’s order calls Operation Vector.

The military could be called upon to fly doses on short order from Europe, the U.S. or elsewhere, and to help get them to remote, northern and coastal communities.

Military planners are also preparing to have troops work at vaccine-storage facilities and deliver freezers and other medical supplies to various regions. But the military remains as much in the dark as everyone else about the specific timing for the doses to start arriving.

“The details of the Armed Forces’ plan become firm when we understand what support will be required by the provinces and territories,” Vance said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2020.

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