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Canada's slow-burn vaccine roll out puts pressure on Trudeau

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign started on the same day in December as the United States, but it now lags dozens of countries, including its southern neighbor, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is feeling the pressure.

FILE PHOTO: Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference at Rideau Cottage, as efforts continue to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada January 5, 2021. REUTERS/Blair Gable/File Photo

Canada’s lack of domestic vaccine production is at the root of the problem, forcing the country to depend on foreign companies with production abroad.

In June, Trudeau’s Liberals had an 11-percentage-point lead against their Conservative Party rival, according to Abacus Data. His government provided billions of dollars so people could stay home and not work during the pandemic while the virus spread rapidly in the United States.

Canada now ranks about 40th in the world in per capita vaccinations, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data. Liberals now lead Conservatives only by one point, Abacus says.

“We don’t know if we’re really going to get all the promised doses... I’ll believe it when I see it,” opposition Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said on Tuesday during question period in parliament.

Canada has procured more doses per capita than any country in the world, and Trudeau says everyone who wants to be inoculated will be by the end of September, but a Leger poll published this week shows most Canadians do not believe him.

Fewer than 3% of Canada’s 38 million people have received the first of two shots.

The 49-year-old Trudeau’s political future could be at stake since senior Liberal sources have said they are eyeing an early vote this year in a bid to free the government from its dependence on opposition parties to pass legislation.

RAMPING UP PRODUCTION

The lack of manufacturing capacity became a hot-button issue after Pfizer Inc reduced its deliveries in January and February in order to boost production capacity at its plant in Belgium. Moderna Inc cut shipments, too.

Canada is making investments in domestic production, including to produce the U.S.-based Novavax Inc vaccine in Montreal; it’s also investing in an inoculation being developed by Quebec-based Medicago. Neither is expected to be available soon.

Critics say the government moved too slow to gear up domestic production and some provincial leaders now want to place their own vaccine orders and bypass the federal government.

Canada had to create manufacturing “from a standing start that is decades and decades old,” said a senior government source, who declined to be named in order to speak frankly, adding it takes time to ramp up production.

Opposition politicians also point out that Trudeau’s quick embrace of newly elected U.S. President Joe Biden has failed to secure shipments of vaccines from the United States.

Biden has not reversed an executive order signed by former U.S. President Donald Trump that blocks vaccine exports.

“You could throw a snowball from (Pfizer’s Michigan) plant and hit Canada, and yet we’re not getting vaccine from the plant, we’re getting it from Belgium,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital.

Officials on both sides of the border have said they have discussed vaccines together, but there has been no indication that the United States is ready to share with its northern neighbor.

Trudeau’s government says the delivery disruptions are over.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have boosted planned deliveries for the second quarter, when 23 million doses are expected, and 84 million are due by September. Three other vaccines await regulatory approval and could accelerate inoculations.

It is a race against time. Canada is beginning to open up as case numbers from the second wave come down. But more contagious variants could cause a third wave before most people get vaccinated, Bogoch said.

“We’re walking on a bit of a knife’s edge right now,” he said.

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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