Canada’s first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Quebec on Sunday night, with more to follow on Monday.

“This is good news,” Prime Minister said on Twitter. “But our fight against COVID-19 is not over. Now more than ever, let’s keep up our vigilance.”

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, who is in charge of logistics at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s national operations centre, told CBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton earlier on Sunday that he is confident provinces are prepared to receive and administer the first batch of approximately 30,000 doses.

“The delivery schedule is unfolding exactly as planned,” Fortin said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live.

“Some flights will arrive tonight, some flights will arrive tomorrow, some trucks will cross the border tomorrow. So it’s all coming in the coming day or two.”

WATCH | Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin discusses Canada’s vaccine rollout:

1st doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine arrive in Canada

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin says the shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine will arrive on different flights and are being monitored every hour with UPS. Some shipments will be arriving Sunday night and the rest in the coming day or two. 7:43

The delivery will set in motion a national immunization program of unprecedented scale that many hope will bring the coronavirus outbreak to an end and an eventual return to normalcy. The pandemic has killed more than 13,000 people in Canada and infected another 450,000.

“The provinces will be in a position to administer the vaccines in the coming days,” Fortin said.

Logistical dry-runs

Fortin led a series of dry-runs last week with the provinces and territories to ensure they are prepared to administer the heat-sensitive shots — which must be stored at temperatures between –80 C and –60 C.

Pfizer contracted UPS to ship the doses from its plant in Belgium to 14 point-of-use sites throughout Canada in order to limit movement and keep the vaccine stable. Most of those sites are at hospitals in major urban centres that have freezers capable of meeting the vaccine’s storage requirements.

UPS Canada released on Friday what the company said are the first images of Canada-bound Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses being processed at a distribution facility in Cologne, Germany.

Doses will be distributed on a per-capita basis, although Pfizer’s vaccine will not be sent to the territories for the time being as they currently lack the capacity to safely store the product.

1st doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine arrive in Canada
Special freezers for COVID-19 vaccines bound for the North are loaded onto a transport aircraft in Ottawa on Saturday. (Matthew Tower/Canadian Forces Combat Camera/Canadian Armed Forces via Reuters)

Fortin said he expects provinces to increase the number of delivery sites capable of receiving vaccine shipments in the coming days.

“It depends per province — they might add one or two or three,” Fortin said. “When we’re at full speed, we’re probably going to have a couple of hundred sites for Pfizer-BioNTech product.”

Once the doses arrive, provinces will administer the vaccine to people in priority population groups, including front-line health-care workers, as well as residents and employees at long-term care homes. 

First Toronto doses going to long-term care workers

Dr. Kevin Smith, president and CEO of the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto, said he expects doses of the vaccine to arrive at the hospital around midday Monday. UHN is one of two point-of-use sites in Ontario, along with The Ottawa Hospital.

The first 3,000 or so doses bound for Toronto will inoculate personal support workers and other employees at hard-hit long-term care homes in the Greater Toronto Area, Smith said. Employees are being given priority over residents because they can travel to the hospital to receive the vaccine.

“There is concern about the volatility of movement, so it’s been recommended that we not transport the vaccine until we have more experience with it,” Smith told Barton. “We’d likely use the Pfizer vaccine for long-term care workers and the Moderna vaccine would first go to long-term care residents.”

WATCH | CBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton interviews Dr. Kevin Smith of University Health Network in Toronto:

1st doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine arrive in Canada

COVID-19 vaccines are expected to arrive in Toronto midday Monday. Dr. Kevin Smith, president and CEO of the University Health Network, is overseeing next week’s vaccinations in Toronto. He says the first group that has been targeted to get the vaccine are long-term care facilities. 9:11

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two doses, with the second shot required 21 days after the first. According to data from clinical trials, immunity starts building 12 days after the first dose, but full protection isn’t in place until 28 days after the first shot.

Prime Minister  announced on Dec. 7 that up to 249,000 doses of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be delivered before the end of the year. Officials have said they expect a total of six million vaccine doses from a variety of vaccine makers to arrive by the end of March 2021.

Details on upcoming shipments from Pfizer — including arrival dates and the number doses — are still being worked out with the company, Fortin said.

“The intent here is to ensure that we continue to have a regular drip feed of vaccines in the coming coming weeks,” he said.

Moderna vaccine next in line for approval

Canada became only the third country to give the green light to Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine when Health Canada authorized use of the vaccine for people over the age of 16 last Wednesday. The regulator concluded the vaccine was safe and approximately 95 per cent effective after a two-month review of the companies’ clinical trial data.

Three other vaccines are currently under review by Health Canada as part of a “rolling review process” that allows companies to submit data from clinical trials even as those trials are still underway. 

WATCH | CBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton interviews Dr. Supriya Sharma of Health Canada:

1st doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine arrive in Canada

Dr. Supriya Sharma with Health Canada is at the centre of the vaccine approval process. She says it’s now about the logistics and getting the COVID-19 vaccine out to the different sites in the country. 6:33

Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, said Moderna is furthest along in the approval process, but the regulator still needs some data from the company before it can reach a decision. 

“We have some additional information on manufacturing of the Moderna vaccine that’s expected to come in sort of mid, late this week,” Sharma said. “We will be in a better place to give more accurate predictions in terms of the ending of the review once we get that information in.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a meeting on Thursday, during which independent public health experts will discuss whether to grant emergency-use approval to Moderna’s vaccine. The FDA authorized Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine on Friday, just over 24 hours after a similar meeting.

Sharma said distribution plans are already being drawn up.

WATCH | Canada’s 1st COVID-19 vaccine arrives:

1st doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine arrive in Canada

A plane carrying the first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine landed at an airport in Quebec on Sunday night. 0:35

“Our reviewers are reviewing the [Moderna] vaccine, and the planning is taking place simultaneously so that everyone is ready when an authorization comes and the company is able to ship quickly — that the whole system is ready to be able to distribute and administer the vaccine,” Sharma said.

Fortin said his team is working with provinces and territories to be ready to receive doses of Moderna vaccine by the end of next week, although delivery isn’t expected until early January.

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