Canada to lend Mexico 5 million doses of H1N1 vaccine; expects to be repaid
By Helen Branswell, Medical Reporter, The Canadian Press
TORONTO – Canada, which has a large surplus of H1N1 vaccine on its hands, announced Wednesday it will lend some to Mexico.
Canada’s NAFTA partner has ordered vaccine from manufacturers Sanofi Pasteur and GlaxoSmithKline, but won’t take possession of the bulk of its supply until the end of this month.
So this week GSK Canada will ship five million doses of adjuvanted vaccine from Canada’s stockpile to Mexico. Later, GSK Canada will put five million doses of adjuvanted vaccine from Mexico’s order into the reserve the company is holding for Canada.
The move was announced in a press release which stipulated that the vaccine will be replaced by the end of March.
“This is not a donation,” the release stated in the lead paragraph. The loan was triggered by a request from Mexico, the Public Health Agency of Canada said.
“We are privileged that we are in a position to support Mexico’s pandemic response efforts,” Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in the release.
“The immediate response to Mexico’s request by Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments serves as testimony to the special relationship that exists between Canada and Mexico.”
Aglukkaq was not available Wednesday and officials of the Public Health Agency of Canada declined to be interviewed on the development.
But in an emailed answer to questions, the agency said Canada currently has enough vaccine to meet domestic demand and could therefore accommodate the Mexican request.
In fact, Canada likely already has much more vaccine than it will need. Demand here, as elsewhere, has plummeted in recent weeks as H1N1 activity has waned in much of the Northern Hemisphere.
The Public Health Agency estimates that somewhere between 40 and 45 per cent of Canadians have been vaccinated against the pandemic virus. At one dose per person, that represents around 15 million doses.
But according to the agency’s most recent estimate – which dates back to Dec. 12 – Canada has taken possession of 27 million doses of vaccine, with much more to come.
The country bought 50.6 million doses of vaccine – 50.4 million from GSK and 200,000 doses of unadjuvanted vaccine from Australian manufacturer CSL Ltd. The GSK order was placed at a time when it was thought two doses per person would be needed for protection. Studies later showed one dose is sufficient for all but young children.
While the Public Health Agency said it is currently impossible to estimate the size of the potential vaccine surplus, it is clear that short of a huge surge in demand Canada will be left with more doses left over than it actually used. The surplus could be in the range of 30 million to 35 million doses.
That situation, which has been apparent for some time, has left observers here and abroad wondering what Canada will do with the excess vaccine and why the country hasn’t joined a group of other nations that are contributing to international vaccine fund for developing countries.
That effort, led by the World Health Organization, is set to make its first deliveries to Azerbaijan and Mongolia this week followed by Afghanistan next week.
“If you really want to hold a mirror up to our nation, you might ask the question why we’re lending and not just giving,” Dr. Ross Upshur, head of the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics, said when he heard the news Canada is lending vaccine to Mexico.
“What does that say about us? We’re not using the vaccine that we have, we’ve got a surplus, but we’re not big enough just to simply give?”
“If we do end up … not using it when there is a need for it elsewhere, that’s really a terrible condemnation of our policies.”
For weeks officials have been saying a decision about the unneeded vaccine would be made early in the New Year. But so far, deliberations are still taking place at the highest levels of government.
“There are a number of options being explored for dealing with surplus vaccine,” the Public Health Agency said by email. “These will be announced when we are confident we have enough vaccine to meet current needs and future contingencies.”
Canadian officials continue to press the public to get vaccinated, saying it’s too soon to rule out a return of the virus.
But the rates of uptake in all but the largest provinces are quite high, leaving some to question how many more people can be persuaded to get an H1N1 shot.
Some jurisdictions have topped 60 per cent.
Newfoundland and Labrador estimates it has vaccinated 68 per cent of its residents, followed by New Brunswick at about 67 per cent, Northwest Territories at 62 per cent and Nunavut at 61 per cent. Nova Scotia hasn’t yet calculated the percentage of doses administered, but says it has sent out to clinics and doctors’ offices enough for 64 per cent of its population.
Quebec and Prince Edward Island say they have vaccinated 57 per cent of their residents and Yukon about 53 per cent.
Saskatchewan estimates about 48 per cent of its citizens have received the H1N1 shot and British Columbia about 40 per cent.
Alberta says between 35 and 40 per cent of its residents have been vaccinated, followed by Ontario at 38 per cent and Manitoba at 36 per cent.
Canada isn’t alone in trying to figure out what to do with excess vaccine.
The Netherlands, Spain, France and Germany are among those that have publicly acknowledged they are looking to either sell excess vaccine or scale back their orders. And Australia has admitted it has used only about one-quarter of the doses it purchased.
The Netherlands has already sold surplus doses. And in recent days, France has announced it is cancelling more than half of its original order of 94 million doses. Reports suggest France is also negotiating to sell vaccine to countries in the Middle East and Central America.