Opinion: Trump trained Canada for vaccine push

Canada should know by now that reassurances are not enough – especially when it comes to procuring pandemic essentials from our trading partners.

It was only last April when, even as Canada was grappling with the rapid initial spread of the coronavirus, the federal government had to mount an aggressive campaign against the U.S. administration to win permission to buy N95 face masks from 3M in the United States.

We knew to expect that kind of trade protectionism led by then-president Donald Trump, and we knew how to handle it. While federal officials were battling back by lobbying anyone who would listen, they were also making common cause with the like-minded Europeans in the hopes of forming a front against egregious trade practices.

But now, the tables have turned.

The federal government has had to quickly pull together a similar lobbying campaign against the European Union, sending diplomats at all levels into high gear to talk to anyone they know in the vaccine supply chain and in the approvals process, making the case to keep the Pfizer and Moderna shots we’re banking on flowing into our country.

Word came from the European Commission late Tuesday that it had approved a shipment for Canada and another for the United Kingdom. There’s a second shipment on deck waiting for similar permitting.

But it looks like Canada will need to mount a full-court press every time we want another batch. The constant vigilance and proactive promotion of Canada’s interests required with Trump is now something we need to arm ourselves with in Europe as well.

Don’t worry, says International Trade Minister Mary Ng.

“We have received repeated reassurances” that Canada’s vaccine supply is on its way, Ng told the House of Commons trade committee on Monday, listing off phone calls with the highest political levels of the EU and her counterparts in Spain and Belgium, where the Moderna and Pfizer plants are based. “We are pressed with this issue.”

But deflective answers aside, the level of frenetic diplomatic activity alone is not reassuring. Nor could Ng offer any specific reason why we should assume the vaccines Ottawa ordered on our behalf are on their way in the quantities and time frame that we expected.

We can hope she is right, that the pharmaceutical companies are granted permission to send hundreds of thousands of doses our way in the next two weeks, and millions by the end of March, and that our angst over delivery was all a bad dream.

But it’s a recurring nightmare.

The problem is twofold – vaccine shortages and protectionism. As we know, production of the two vaccines approved in Canada has slowed dramatically because of manufacturing issues in facilities in Europe. And then last Friday, the EU issued a new requirement that exports of those vaccines had to be approved, on paper, at two levels – by both the EU and the member state involved.

There’s a list of exempt countries, and Canada is not on it.

Senior Canadian officials say the EU is within its rights, both under the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and under the World Trade Organization, to temporarily control exports in emergency situations, so there’s no point in fighting the export controls themselves.

Canada may have an argument around discrimination since it didn’t make the list of exempt countries, they said. But really, are we going to take that argument to a trade dispute that will take months, if not years, to deliberate? We need the vaccines now.

“Let’s be real,” Toronto-based trade lawyer Larry Herman said in an interview. “Whatever legal arguments might theoretically be made, this isn’t a matter for running off to the WTO or invoking CETA. That would get us nowhere. The urgency of the situation requires something to be worked out among Canada, the EU and the companies. The feds are working on that flat out. It’s the only way.”

A similar plea came from the pharmaceutical industry in Canada on Tuesday, which is worried that vaccine nationalism in Europe would disrupt supply chains for medical goods more broadly.

Europe and Canada have worked together in the past to make sure those global supply chains stood up, and they need to remember their principles or they risk putting their own medical supplies at risk, said Pamela Fralick, president of Innovative Medicines Canada.

To be sure, Canada was not the intended target of the European measures. European authorities were alarmed about vaccine producers based in Europe filling orders outside the EU before delivering at home, over-promising and under-delivering. But that’s the same kind of reasoning we saw with Trump and the face masks.

And frankly, it’s the same tone that we heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take on Tuesday when he announced that Novavax would likely start producing vaccines in Canada by the end of the year.

“If, in the best-case scenario, we don’t need these (vaccines) here in Canada, we will offer them to our allies, to our partners, to developing countries that are in need all over the world,” he said. His emphasis was on Canada’s benevolence, but the subtext was, Canadians first.

In the meantime, 4,368 more people in Canada were infected with COVID-19 every day this week, leaving 4,368 networks of families and friends wondering how they will confront the next few days without treatment in hand. That’s far from reassuring.

Heather Scoffield is a National Affairs writer.

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