It’s hard to imagine why the province would turn down thousands of doses of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, especially when it has the highest per capita cases of the disease in the country.
With a race on to immunize as many Manitobans as quickly as possible, it seems inconceivable the province would not want to get its hands on as much vaccine supply as possible.
Manitoba’s vaccine task force announced this week it’s refusing a shipment of 23,800 doses of AstraZeneca from the federal government. It’s not doing so because the product is unsafe or ineffective. There have been reports of rare adverse effects from AstraZeneca, including blood clots. But the risks of getting very sick, including dying, from COVID-19 far exceed any risks associated with the vaccine.
"When it comes to AstraZeneca, it is a safe and effective vaccine," Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the province’s vaccine task force, said Wednesday. "If we didn’t have a strong supply of mRNA (vaccine), we would be continuing to use it."
The reason the province says it’s refusing to accept any more AstraZeneca is because it has a robust supply of messenger RNA vaccines, namely Pfizer and Moderna. Now that it has decided it’s safe and effective for those who received a first dose of AstraZeneca to get Pfizer or Moderna as a second shot, the province doesn’t need any more AstraZeneca.
Until very recently, the province has said the only thing stopping it from ramping up its vaccine rollout is limited supply from the federal government. If it could get more doses from Ottawa, it could hit its target of administering 20,000 doses a day (a number it has never been close to reaching).
That has changed. Manitoba now apparently has so much vaccine, it can afford to turn down supply.
For Manitobans who still want AstraZeneca as a second dose, they will have to hunt around for it on their own, the province said (unlike in Saskatchewan where they're making it available at a specific location). There is no central registry to locate the 1,800-odd AstraZeneca doses left at clinics and pharmacies scattered around Manitoba.
None of this makes any sense. If AstraZeneca is safe and effective, as Reimer says, and the risks of rare blood clots are even lower with a second dose (as Reimer also said), why wouldn’t the province accept the 23,800 doses and get them out to clinics and pharmacies so people can decide for themselves? It would increase the province’s total vaccine supply and free up mRNA vaccines for others.
The only possible downside is if vaccine hesitancy for AstraZeneca is so high that most of the 23,800 doses could be wasted.
That’s what the province alluded to when asked for further clarification Wednesday.
"Manitoba has taken note of the extremely low public demand for AZ over the past several weeks while it has been available across the province and relinquished its 23,000-dose AstraZeneca supply, which could be redeployed for use in other Canadian jurisdictions," a provincial spokesperson said in an email.
However, the province has provided no evidence to support that assertion.
Approximately 75,000 Manitobans have received an AstraZeneca shot. Who’s to say a third or more of them wouldn’t want it as a second dose?
To confuse matters further, Reimer says ordering more AstraZeneca in the future is not off the table.
"If we see a trend in Manitoba where there’s a large number of people who are not receiving that second dose… this is something that we can look at again and re-evaluate what the best approach is for Manitobans."
Manitoba can’t wait that long.
Whether the province orders the 23,800 doses of AstraZeneca will have a minimal effect on the overall rollout of 1.5 million doses. But it will have an impact, the same way keeping a stockpile of more than 40,000 doses of mRNA vaccines in freezers (the amount on hand when new shipments of Pfizer arrive every week) instead of getting them into arms earlier. These decisions, including the province’s slow start to its vaccine rollout, have a cumulative effect. They mitigate the impact vaccines have on reducing the spread of the virus and they delay the province’s reopening plans.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.