Canada Has Placed Its First Vaccine Order, but Don’t Expect a ‘Silver Bullet’

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For Canadians anxiously craving an inoculation against the coronavirus, this week brought both optimism and words of sobering caution.

The federal government on Wednesday announced the first of many major deals to buy vaccines from two U.S.-based multinational drug companies: Pfizer and Moderna.

There will be “millions” of doses, Anita Anand, the cabinet minister responsible for the deal, said at a news conference. She did not offer any more details. But she and another cabinet minister said the government was negotiating deals with other vaccine makers, including some in Canada.

The catch in all of this is that neither Pfizer nor Moderna, nor anyone else, actually has a proven vaccine. The situation is similar to what happened with the Salk polio vaccine in the mid-1950s. As I wrote in last week’s newsletter, to speed up that vaccine, the federal government gambled and placed a bulk order to start production at Connaught Laboratories before trials on patients had proved that it was safe and effective.

Connaught, which played a crucial role in bringing the Salk vaccine to production, was the only game in Canada back then. This time around, many more companies are vying to make the coronavirus vaccine. The World Health Organization counts 28 possible vaccines now undergoing trials. Many more, including some Canadian candidates, are in earlier phases.

To guide its vaccine shopping, as well as its investments in Canadian vaccines and vaccine production, the federal government has turned to a panel of experts with backgrounds in science, medicine, public health and vaccine manufacturing.

As bets go, choosing Pfizer and Moderna is relatively conservative. Late last month, both companies began the first large-scale trials of their candidate vaccines in the United States.

[Read: Moderna and Pfizer Begin Late-Stage Vaccine Trials]

Assuming all goes well, Ms. Anand said, the first deliveries should appear next year.

But earlier in the week, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, warned against making too many assumptions about the power of vaccination to end the current pandemic.

At this stage, she said, vaccines are not “the silver bullet solution.”

She said many vaccines for other viruses only lessen the consequences of infection; they don’t prevent it.

As a result, she said, public health officials are working on the assumption that many of the measures now in place will be around for upward of two years.

Reggie Lo, a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph who focuses on vaccine development, told me this week that the first vaccine candidates, which may not be the most effective ones, may appear by the end of the year, but scaling up their production to inoculate billions will be a formidable challenge.

He also stressed that with the exception of smallpox, other deadly viruses have not been wiped out by decades of vaccination.

“The public needs to deal with this ‘forever,’” Dr. Lo said in an email. “Anyone who thinks the epidemic is over with development of a vaccine failed to grasp the enormity of the problem.”

Last week’s newsletter prompted the former Prime Minister Paul Martin to call me. His father, also Paul Martin, was, as federal health minister, the main player in Canada’s rollout and participation in development of the Salk vaccine.

The younger Mr. Martin, who was infected with polio as a child, had a memory of that time that captures the uncertainty around vaccines.

His father, he said, was usually good spirited at home. But one afternoon in 1955 when Mr. Martin went into his library, his father was unusually distracted and testy. He was told to leave and go see his mother.

From her, Mr. Martin learned that his father was grappling with perhaps the most difficult decision of his life: whether to continue with plans to vaccinate Canada. A batch of vaccines made by Cutter Laboratories, an American company, had been determined to be defective and ended up infecting 40,000 children. About 200 of them were left paralyzed, and 10 died.

As a result, the United States suspended polio vaccination for several months, a decision that led to infections, deaths and paralysis. Ultimately, the elder Mr. Martin was convinced that Connaught’s vaccine was safe, and Canada continued its inoculations without incident.

The stakes, if anything, are greater now as the world rushes to produce a coronavirus vaccine. We all may be called to have patience and realistic expectations.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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