By Paul Vieira in Ottawa and Vipal Monga in Toronto 

The U.S. economy is opening up and Covid-19 vaccines are increasingly available. But its neighbor to the north has had one of the slowest vaccine rollouts among developed economies, and is now imposing new lockdowns to stem a surge in infections.

Canada's lockdowns come as new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus have taken hold in the country. The rapid spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the U.K., and P.1 variant, which originated in Brazil, has forced authorities in Canada's biggest provinces to impose new stay-at-home orders and in some cases, shut down schools.

The country's vaccine rollout, stymied by supply-chain problems and a lack of coordination at the federal and provincial levels, contrasts with its initial, aggressive response to securing doses earlier in the pandemic. Canada clinched deals with eight vaccine makers, the bulk of them completed before late last year, for access to as much as 404 million doses -- the most doses per capita of any advanced economy.

But Canada has been slow to get those shots into people's arms, and Canadians have watched with envy the progress in the U.S.

Data collected by the University of Oxford's Our World in Data shows Canada had provided one or more doses to about 16% of its population as of Tuesday, whereas the U.S. had covered 32% of its population, the U.K. was at 47% and Israel had reached 61%.

The Oxford data indicate Canada is on par with some countries in Europe in terms of how much of its population has received at least one vaccine dose. France had administered at least one dose to 14% of its population as of Tuesday, and Germany had reached 13% of its population.

The situation has prompted some Canadians to head south for a shot.

Andrew Sepielli, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, last week drove his family 190 miles southwest to Harborcreek Township in Pennsylvania to get the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Mr. Sepielli, a U.S. citizen with permanent resident status in Canada, and his wife, a dual citizen, received their doses last week at a Walmart pharmacy.

"I saw a lot of friends on Facebook in the U.S. posting their vaccine selfies, and I knew that once they had their two shots, they'd be able to go back to their regular lives," he said.

Vaccines were delayed in Canada partly because of the deals that Canadian officials signed with drugmakers, which "appear to have relied on backloaded contracts, heavy on options to purchase that put Canada back in the queue," said Mark Warner, a trade lawyer who practices in Canada and the U.S. and whose clients include pharmaceutical companies.

Through a spokeswoman, Canadian Procurement Minister Anita Anand said the government has been able to accelerate the vaccine-delivery timetable "as a result of our ongoing, aggressive negotiations with suppliers."

For now, the dearth of vaccines has forced Canada into a targeted approach to immunization, which is leaving large portions of the country -- such as low-income, essential workers in the Toronto region -- vulnerable.

"We haven't had the luxury of supply to vaccinate indiscriminately," said Dr. Jeff Kwong, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of Toronto.

The U.S., by contrast, hasn't seen as large a spread of the variants possibly because more people there have some form of immunity, either through prior infection or because they have been vaccinated, he added.

Ontario, Canada's most populous province, said a rapid rise in hospitalizations and admissions into intensive-care units is threatening to overwhelm the healthcare system. Health officials are now worried that Ontario hospitals are running short of drugs used to treat moderately to critically ill Covid-19 patients.

On Wednesday its government declared a state of emergency and issued a four-week stay-at-home order. Toronto, the largest city in Ontario and Canada, closed its schools, forcing over 300,000 students to shift to remote learning.

"We need to get the vaccines where they will have the greatest impact as quickly as possible," said Ontario Premier Doug Ford. "This will be critical to get a third wave under control."

Like in Europe, Canada's slow pace of vaccination was partly due to supply-chain pressures and a decision by Pfizer Inc. in January to retool its vaccine factory in Belgium -- with Canada sustaining a 70% cut to shipments for a four-week period that ended mid-February, deeper than most nations. Unlike the U.S. and Europe, Canada doesn't manufacture the vaccines.

A Canadian official said the government focused on sourcing vaccines from Europe, not the U.S., in part due to the risk that the Trump administration might block the exports of doses. A year ago, the Trump administration initially blocked shipments of N95 masks to Canada and elsewhere, before relenting.

Canada -- with a population of over 38 million, or about a ninth of the U.S. -- received about nine million doses in the first three months of this year. Shipments are expected to accelerate in the second quarter and reach 44 million in the second quarter.

To bolster immediate supply, Canada tapped additional doses through the Covax global initiative. While intended to provide doses to lower-income countries, Covax allows wealthier countries that contribute, like Canada, to draw on doses "as a critical insurance policy."

Canada has also been able to broaden its reach due to recommendations by officials to delay a second shot by up to four months.

Sylvanus Thompson, who is 67 years old, arrived early on Wednesday for his vaccination appointment at Toronto's downtown convention center, which has been refitted into a mass vaccination clinic.

"I'm relieved," he said after receiving his shot. "We've been much slower than the U.S., but we don't make any vaccines."

The slow rollout lays bare the gaps in Canada's healthcare system, said Gary Manson, 68, who was also vaccinated in Toronto on Wednesday.

"It's a great lesson for Canada," he said. "We need to invest in the pharmaceuticals industry."

Gregory Marchildon, a health-policy expert from the University of Toronto, said Canada's rollout has also been hampered by its decentralized federation, in which the provinces have control over how and when vaccine doses are administered. A coherent approach requires all levels of government "to collaborate much more closely than has actually occurred," he said.

--Kim Mackrael contributed to this article.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 08, 2021 14:26 ET (18:26 GMT)

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