Vaccine distribution, the inability to pull off a mass campaign that could spark crowds and the absence of a national immunization registry are among the top hurdles facing Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, says the head of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI).

“To me the challenge is … the distribution. So we make the recommendations, but between that and getting the vaccine into people’s arms is going to be quite a challenge,” Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh told CBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton on Sunday.

The independent committee is made up of experts tasked with advising the Public Health Agency of Canada on the use of vaccines. One of its goals is to help provinces and territories determine who should first receive the COVID-19 vaccine, considering some populations have higher needs and initial supply will be limited.

Key populations for prioritization include seniors, front-line workers and others at risk of contracting or transmitting the illness. The committee says other considerations, such as people who belong to multiple at-risk populations, the characteristics of approved vaccines and the severity of outbreaks should also be factored into the country’s distribution plan.

It’s up to specific jurisdictions to hammer out the logistics of those plans, Quach-Thanh said, adding that strategies used during 2009’s H1N1 pandemic won’t work today.

“We’re not going to be able to do the mass vaccination campaign like we were doing for H1N1, for instance, because … putting people together increases the risk of spreading COVID,” she said. The campaign was Canada’s largest vaccination program and drew crowds and lengthy lineups from those seeking a vaccine. 

Quach-Thanh’s comments come after an encouraging week for COVID-19 vaccine candidates, with Moderna posting a 94.5 per cent success rate for its vaccine on Monday and Pfizer announcing a 95 per cent success rate two days later. 

The physician said the NACI has yet to see data from either pharmaceutical company regarding their Phase 3 trials, but added that she hopes to see that information soon.

The federal government has agreements with the two companies, along with Novavax and Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. It also has deals with Sanofi/GSK, AstraZeneca and Medicago.

Canada is to receive 20 million to 76 million doses of each vaccine should they make it through clinical trials and get the green light from Health Canada.

Another obstacle, Quach-Thanh said, is the fact that the country has no national immunization registry to oversee and track Canadians’ vaccination records — something that could prove useful given that the Pfizer and Moderna candidates must be administered twice. 

“It adds a challenge to this issue,” she said. “I think that most provinces have registries so that they’re able to follow up on who gets what, and it’s now the time to really be able to use it.”

On Tuesday, Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Ottawa’s goal is to cover the “vast majority of the Canadian population” by the end of 2021.

Quach-Thanh said it’s critical to keep that timeframe in mind.

“If people think that by March everybody is going to be out of the woods because we’re all going to get vaccinated, that doesn’t work,” she said.

“We expect that those non-pharmacological interventions like physical distancing, mask wearing … will likely need to still be in place for another year or so because we don’t expect most … Canadians to have been vaccinated before that time.”

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