Saturday, December 12, 2020

Why Canada is getting its Pfizer vaccines from Belgium

Canada gets its first batch of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine this weekend - a paltry 250,000 doses, but hey, better than nothing - and the mood of the nation seems to have risen overnight as a result, despite the news about adverse allergic reactions, the onerous logistics required, and the fact that we'll still be wearing masks for many months to come regardless. Such is the desperation for any inkling of good news.

But then I read that the batch of vaccines (and presumably the larger batches that will follow?) is being flown from a Pfizer plant in the small town of Puurs in northern Belgium, first to Cologne, Germany, then to UPS's main US hub in Louisville, Kentucky, when it will be divided up into smaller shipments to the various provinces in Canada. What a convoluted route, and all this at -70°C! Not to mention that this puts Canada's vaccines at risk from ultra-nationalist Republican types planning a heist to vouchsafe the first vaccines for true-blood Americans! (Only slightly joking.)

But wait, isn't Pfizer an American company? I know that the heavy lifting of the design and development of the vaccine was done by Mainz, Germany-based partner BioNTech SE, and that Pfizer is mainly contributing its commercial manufacturing and distribution heft. Incidentally, this vaccine was not developed through the US's much-vaunted Operation Warp Speed program, despite the claims of the Trump administration: BioNTech received its development money from the German government.

But can the vaccine not be manufactured in the USA, at least for the north American market? Pfizer's own website explains that, "The Puurs site is being used primarily for European supply, but will also serve as back up to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the US market". So, presumably, the US (and Canada) market will eventually be served from Kalamazoo, "the largest manufacturing site in the Pfizer network", but it is not yet up to speed.

It turns out that Canada's supplies of the Moderna vaccine is also going to be coming from Europe, even though the Moderna vaccine was developed in the USA by an American company. Manufacture will be in Switzerland, with the final bottling (vialling?) taking place in Spain! Ah, the joys of globalization! Can this really be the most efficient arrangement capitalism can come up with?

And the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine? Most of the manufacturing is in Oxford and Keele in the UK, but they also have some manufacturing capacity in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.


Fast forward a month and more, and Pfizer's supply of vaccines to Canada has dried up completely, as their Belgian plant inexplicably decides to refit to allow for greater production (at just the time when everyone is clamouring for it - like, they didn't realize it would be such a popular product?)

At the same time, the European Union is threatening to make its exports of vaccines in general more difficult, largely as a tit-for-tat retaliation against Britain's AstraZeneca, which has failed to fulfill the promised deliveries to the EU. And the AstraZeneca plant in question? Yup, Belgium.

Why do the vaccine companies not just license manufacturing companies in lots of different countries - including Canada? Why does it all need to be so centralized? Surely, all they need to do is to provide the recipe, maybe provide some quality control, and rake in billions in royalties and commissions, as other countries assume some control and independence over their own vaccine rollout.

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