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Healthcare

Behind The Relatively Slow Vaccine Rollout In Canada

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Canada is a rich country. It has a universal health care system. It has long had a COVID-19 vaccination plan, which is why Canadians are frustrated that their vaccine rollout has been so slow. Less than 2% of the country is fully vaccinated at this point. Compare that with the U.S., where nearly a quarter of the population is now fully vaccinated. Well, to find out why, we are joined from Vancouver by the Globe and Mail health columnist Andre Picard. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ANDRE PICARD: Hi.

KELLY: Hi. So why is Canada behind?

PICARD: I think there's a number of reasons that we've had this bumpy rollout, but the main one is supply. We just have a lack of supply. We have contracts for about 400 million doses, but they're all backloaded, so they're coming very slowly. We don't have any domestic production. And then we have a very decentralized health system, which means that the different rules in different parts of the country are very confusing for the public. So a whole series of factors have made this kind of a mess.

KELLY: OK. Well, let me follow up on a couple of things you raise. One, the supply issue and no domestic vaccine production - that seems curious to me for, again, as I said, a rich country with an excellent health care system.

PICARD: This is a longstanding issue. For decades, we've been debating this about how much drug production do we need in our country. We're right beside this giant of the U.S., which produces most of the drugs we use. Our pharma companies tend to be branch plants, just sort of offices of the larger companies. So there's a lot of history to this that explains why we don't have vaccine production. Canada also has strict regulation of drug prices, so our drugs are much, much cheaper than in the U.S. And pharma companies don't really like that, so they don't really invest in the country. So there's all kinds of factors underlying this.

KELLY: What role does the U.S. play here? What percentage of vaccines does Canada get from your neighbor down South?

PICARD: Yeah. This may be curious to Americans, but we don't get any of our vaccines from the U.S. They all come from Europe and from India. And the reason is the U.S. doesn't like to export vaccines. They hoard them, essentially. And that makes Canadians very angry, to be honest.

KELLY: You also noted, too, the health system in Canada is excellent, but it is very decentralized. How has that played out in terms of distributing the vaccine?

PICARD: Well, there's this interplay between the federal and provincial government. So the federal government is responsible for procurement, for purchasing vaccines, but the provinces are responsible for getting them into people's arms. So there's a lot of finger-pointing, blaming each way. Each of the jurisdictions have slightly different rules, different priorities. Almost everyone in Canada started vaccinating in long-term care homes. We had - that's where all our deaths occurred. So that was easy. But after that, there's been a lot of debate to vaccinate those most at risk, those most at risk of spreading. And we have different rules in different parts of the country.

KELLY: The finger-pointing and back-and-forth sounds very familiar to Americans. I have to say our states have also had their issues and ups and downs with the federal government. Well, let's end with some good news. Give people some hope because you have been reporting and writing that the vaccine rollout in Canada is beginning to accelerate. What are you looking for in the next weeks and months?

PICARD: Yeah. I think what gives us hope is that we're really going to pick up steam very soon. We've vaccinated almost 9 million people with one dose. So by June - maybe by Canada Day, July 1 - we should have almost all adults vaccinated in this country. So the promise is there. And we just have to get over this hump of lack of supply, and we'll have a lot of supply fairly soon.

KELLY: That is Andre Picard, columnist at the Globe and Mail. Thank you very much.

PICARD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN BAKER SONG, "SPRAINED ANKLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.