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Canadian politicians struggle to come to grips with the global vaccine race – CBC.ca

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The global scramble to vaccinate the human race against COVID-19 is bigger than Canadian politics. But every Canadian politician no doubt understands the political and human importance of this country seeming to do well in this multinational competition. 

The result this week is anxiety and a rush to assign blame that has failed to produce easy answers to the central question of what, if anything, Canadian officials could be doing to procure more of what’s arguably the most precious commodity on Earth.

But this consternation among Canadian politicians might be obscuring a bigger question for the world: Is this really the best way to go about vaccinating 7.6 billion people against a common threat? 

The latest spasm of concern about Canada’s vaccine supply can be traced to a production facility in Puurs, Belgium, where Pfizer has been manufacturing one of the two approved vaccines for use in Canada. Pfizer has decided to retool that facility so that it can increase production. In the short-term, that means fewer doses will be available.

In response to Pfizer’s change of plans, Ontario Premier Doug Ford quickly declared that, if he were prime minister, he’d be on the phone to Pfizer’s top executive demanding the previously scheduled shipments. “I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him,” Ford said.

WATCH | Ontario premier says Trudeau’s ‘No. 1 job’ is to get vaccines:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to fight to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Canada and he suggests the alternative to the Belgian plant may be Pfizer’s Michigan facility. 0:55

It stands to reason that if getting a plentiful supply of the Pfizer vaccine was as easy as getting up Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla’s ying-yang with a firecracker, nearly every leader on the planet would be doing so. But Ford got a chance to test his theory — a day later he spoke with the president of Pfizer Canada. If a firecracker was lit during that conversation, it has so far failed to change Pfizer’s plans.

In Ottawa, the consternation has been only slightly less colourful, culminating in an “emergency debate” in the House of Commons on Tuesday. 

The Conservatives argue that an ill-fated partnership between the National Research Council and China’s CanSino Biologics distracted Justin Trudeau’s government from pursuing better options — but Public Services Minister Anita Anand told the Canadian Press in December that Canada was the fourth country in the world to sign a contract with Pfizer and the first to sign with Moderna, the other major supplier of an approved vaccine. 

The New Democrats argue that the federal government should have negotiated for the right to domestically produce the currently approved vaccines — but that presumably depends in large part on the willingness of companies like Moderna and Pfizer to do so. 

A real effort to ensure Canada had domestic capacity to produce a pandemic vaccine likely would have had to have been implemented years ago.

Little control over vaccine supply

Eventually, Tuesday night’s debate landed on questions of transparency. The government says it has a plan for vaccinating Canadians, but the opposition says that plan isn’t detailed enough.

The opposition insists the government should release the details of the contracts it has signed with manufacturers, but the government says those contracts are necessarily confidential. There are suggestions that Europe’s supply of the Pfizer vaccine might be smaller than the interruption to Canada’s supply, but it’s not clear why that might be the case.

The Liberals surely understand the gravity of the vaccine race, but they have never shown much interest in explaining themselves in detail. They insist that their agreements with seven potential manufacturers have put Canada in a decent position and that their medium-term and long-term targets for vaccinating Canadians over the course of this year will not be affected by the current shortfall.

WATCH | EU threatens to slow vaccine exports, increasing concerns about vaccine nationalism:

The European Union is threatening to slow exports of the Pfizer vaccine after Astra-Zeneca announced a delay in production. With vaccines in short supply, global health leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the rise of vaccine nationalism. 2:00

But Pfizer’s decision to retool the plant in Puurs underlines how little control the Liberal government can claim to have over the situation and how little sympathy they’ll receive if things don’t work out the way they said they would.

It was just over a month ago that the federal government was able to answer a previous panic with earlier-than-expected approvals and shipments of the new vaccine. If the Liberals were only too happy to bask in that good news, this interruption feels like the universe’s way of telling them to not get cocky.

Canada vs. other countries

In the meantime, even the definition of success will be up for debate.

On Monday, for instance, Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus complained that Canada was not doing as well as the Seychelles, which had delivered at least a first dose to 20.22 per cent of its population through January 25. By comparison, Canada’s rate of vaccination was 2.23 per cent.

But the tiny island nation has a population of 98,000 people (roughly the equivalent of Red Deer, Alta). In absolute terms, the number of people who had received a dose in the Seychelles was 19,889. Canada, meanwhile, had administered doses to 839,949 people.

WATCH | Ottawa offers assurances about COVID-19 vaccine supply:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to reassure Canadians about the COVID-19 vaccine supply after the European Union raised the possibility of imposing export controls on vaccines leaving the EU. Canada’s Pfizer-BioNTech shots are made in Belgium. 1:44

On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland countered that Canada was ahead of Germany, France, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. But three of those countries — Japan, Australia and New Zealand — haven’t yet begun their vaccination programs. And in two of those countries — Australia and New Zealand — COVID-19 is almost non-existent. 

‘This is pure nonsense’

During the emergency debate on Tuesday night, the NDP’s Don Davies said Canada ranked 16th per capita in doses administered. He meant it as a complaint. But it could just as easily be framed as a compliment — if Canada ends up being the 16th fastest country to vaccinate its population, it will have finished ahead of 174 other countries. Among the 32 OECD countries who have begun vaccinations, Canada ranks 12th in doses administered per capita.

A few countries — the United States, United Kingdom and Israel — seem to be benefiting from their own unique circumstances. The U.S. and U.K., for instance, have access to domestic production of the available vaccines.

In every other country, there might be some version of the Canadian debate playing out; Trudeau said last week that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had commiserated about the similar criticism that they were each facing. 

WATCH | COVID’s one year anniversary in Canada:

One year after the first confirmed case of COVID-19, are we really all in it together? A PSW speaks about the reality of working the front lines in long-term care homes, and an artist questions life after CERB. PLUS, why first-world countries like Canada are being accused of hoarding vaccines. 45:36

But all of this might underline the questions of whether an every-country-for-itself scramble to acquire vaccines from a limited number of private manufacturers is the sensible way to go about vaccinating the human race.

“‘Could Canada have done more?’ The problem for me is that this is not the right question. What we’ve been seeing, for me, is a bit of a catastrophe,” said Marc-Andre Gagnon, a political science professor at Carleton University who focuses on pharmaceutical policy.

“You end up with a handful of companies that are developing their own vaccines, each by themselves, working in silos. So then you have a product with a patent, so monopoly rights on the product. And then you end up with this vaccine nationalism of all countries basically doing a free market negotiation in terms of who can jump the queue in order to get faster access to the vaccines. In terms of priorities of global public health, this is pure nonsense.”

A better approach, Gagnon suggests, would have focused on collaboration, data sharing and making use of all available manufacturing capacity around the world. 

Pfizer’s new deal with Sanofi, a rival producer, might at least be a step in that direction. But any serious rethinking of global vaccination policy might have to wait for the next pandemic.

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Russian vodka, caviar and diamonds on new Canadian sanctions list

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OTTAWA — Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly announced a fresh wave of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime on Friday including a ban on importing Russian vodka, caviar and diamonds.

The ban on the import of certain luxury goods from Russia will tighten the net on the country’s elite and covers alcoholic drinks, fish and seafood.

Canada is also banning the export of cigarettes and alcoholic drinks to Russia, as well as designer clothing, training shoes and sportswear.

The sanctions package, covering goods worth $75.7 million in 2021, includes a ban on the export of jewelry, art and even kitchenware from Canada to Russia.

Canada is also imposing a ban on products that could be used in the production and manufacture of weapons by Russia.

Joly also imposed sanctions on 14 more people, including oligarchs with links to the Russian president’s regime and their family.

They include billionaire Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent who bought two major newspapers, the Evening Standard and Independent, in the United Kingdom. He also finances Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading opposition newspaper.

Gleb Frank, owner of one of Russia’s largest fishery companies, and son of Sergei Frank, former minister of transport and former CEO of Sovcomflot, Russia’s largest shipping firm, is on the new sanctions list.

So is Gleb Frank’s wife Ksenia Frank, the youngest daughter of oligarch Gennady Timchenko, an associate of Putin. She lives in Switzerland and attended Edinburgh University in the U.K.

Elena Timchenko, wife of Gennady Timchenko, is also on the latest sanctions roll.

David Davidovich, the “right-hand man” of oligarch Roman Abramovich, is also hit by sanctions. Abramovich is selling Chelsea, the British Premier League soccer club, after being caught in an earlier wave of sanctions.

The fresh tranche of financial penalties came as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland wrapped up a round of talks with G7 counterparts in Germany, as well as with Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

Freeland announced Canada is extending an additional $250-million loan to Ukraine, bringing Canada’s total financial support for the war-torn country to $1.8 billion. The loan comes on top of military support and weaponry for Ukraine.

Speaking to reporters from Germany, Freeland said other G7 nations were interested in following Canada’s lead in making legislative changes allowing the confiscation and sale of Russian assets to help rebuild Ukraine.

Current laws only allow the government to freeze assets and accounts of sanctioned individuals. But Canada’s budget implementation bill sets out its intent to enact a law that would broaden the current sanctions regime to allow for the seizure of their assets.

Freeland said other G7 countries had lots of questions about “the seizure of Russian assets and using them to help pay for the reconstruction of Ukraine” and were interested in following Canada’s lead.

She said Canada has an opportunity “to lead by example and show what can be done.”

“There was a lot of interest in what Canada is doing,” Freeland said.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Canada has imposed sanctions on more than 1,000 individuals and entities from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

“The Putin regime must, and will, answer for their unjustifiable acts,” said Joly.

“Canada, together with our allies, will be relentless in our efforts to maintain pressure on the Russian regime, until it is no longer able to wage war. We are unwavering in our support for Ukraine and its people.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2022.

 

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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Smaller telcos could feel the pinch after Ottawa prohibits use of Huawei’s 4G gear

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Experts say smaller, independent telecommunications companies will be hurt the most by a federal government decision to ban China’s Huawei Technologies and ZTE from involvement in Canada’s 5G wireless network, in a move that will also eventually prohibit their products from existing 4G services equipment.

Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Thursday that the government will not be reimbursing the companies which need to remove this equipment from their networks by Dec. 31, 2027.

Telecom experts say smaller companies like Ice Wireless, which serves northern Canada and partnered with Huawei in 2019, as well as British Columbia’s rural internet provider ABC Communications, which also partnered with Huawei in 2019, could be negatively affected.

“We’re not talking companies that are flush with cash. They are going to have to stop investing in the technology that they have in place and somehow come up with the money to replace the equipment over the next five years,” telecom consultant Mark Goldberg said in an interview.

“It’s a bigger deal for the smaller players, proportionate to their resources,” former Telus chief financial officer Robert McFarlane said in an interview.

McFarlane noted the United States’ creation of a fund to provide subsidies to rural carriers working with Huawei when they had banned the company, something Canada hasn’t established.

Canada’s biggest telecom companies, including Telus Corp. and Bell Canada parent BCE Inc. will likely be able to absorb the costs associated with having to pull out 4G Huawei gear, the experts said.

Telus and BCE each said in 2020 that they would be moving away from Huawei and working with Sweden’s Ericsson as a supplier for their 5G networks.

The experts also said Rogers Communications Inc., whose partnership with Ericsson began in 2018, is an even better position.

Even though rural internet provider Xplornet Communications Inc. announced in 2020 that it would no longer be relying on Huawei for its equipment, it could face financial hurdles as it transitions from 4G to 5G because it doesn’t have the same cash reserves as Canada’s major players, they add.

Huawei Canada has reacted to Ottawa’s move, saying that it is “an unfortunate political decision that has nothing to do with cybersecurity or any of the technologies in question.”

Huawei Canada added that the ban on its equipment and services could lead to “significant economic loss in Canada and drive up the cost of communications for Canadian consumers.”

In an interview Thursday, Huawei Canada vice-president Alykhan Velshi said that it would be “reckless and irresponsible” for the Canadian government to ask the company to stop supporting its existing equipment in the 5G network, noting that there are around 10,000 cellphone sites across Canada that have Huawei technology in them.

He also said that more conversations need to be had between Huawei and Ottawa.

ZTE also provided its thoughts on the decision in a statement saying that the company “reject(s) the premise of this announcement,” calling it “highly speculative.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department says it welcomes Canada’s decision to ban China’s Huawei Technologies and ZTE from its next-generation mobile networks.

In a statement, the U.S. says it supports efforts around the world to ensure consumers and customers can trust their wireless networks and providers.

It says it will continue to collaborate with Canada and other allies to ensure shared security in the 5G era.

“We welcome Canada’s decision,” the State Department said in writing Friday in response to a query from The Canadian Press.

“The United States supports efforts to ensure countries, companies, and citizens can trust their wireless networks and their operators. We continue to collaborate with allies like Canada to ensure our shared security in a 5G future and beyond.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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Trudeau pledges more action on cybersecurity following decision to ban Huawei from 5G

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OTTAWA — A day after the federal Liberals banned Chinese firms Huawei Technologies and ZTE from helping build Canada’s 5G networks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said more must be done to secure critical systems against threats.

The government is working closely with big financial institutions as well as other companies across the country to protect vital networks from malicious attackers, Trudeau said Friday at an event in Quebec.

Canada will do more, whether through legislation, new spending or “better and stronger partnerships,” he told reporters.

Trudeau seemed undaunted by the fact Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin raised the spectre of retaliation over Canada’s 5G decision at a press briefing Friday.

“Without any solid evidence, the Canadian side cited vague security risks as a pretext to exclude relevant Chinese companies from its market,” Wang said.

“This move violates the market economy principle and free-trade rules and severely harms the Chinese companies’ legitimate rights and interests.”

Trudeau conceded Canada’s 5G policy “may well lead to challenges of the World Trade Organization.”

“But we feel that it is extremely important to stand up for Canadian protection, Canadian interests and Canadian safety. That’s why we took this decision and we stand by it.”

The Liberal government made it clear this week that the long-awaited 5G decision is only a first step in an era of perpetual cyberattacks, ransomware operations and efforts by criminal hackers and state-sponsored players to pilfer information or sabotage key infrastructure.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Thursday the government would table legislation to protect critical infrastructure in the finance, telecommunications, energy and transport sectors.

In addition, Mendicino’s mandate letter from the prime minister directs him to expand efforts to detect security risks in foreign research and investment partnerships, partly by increasing RCMP and security agency resources for this purpose.

Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University, said legitimate network integrity concerns, as well as persistent pressure from the United States, helped forge Canada’s decision to exclude the Chinese vendors from 5G.

“Is this going to resolve our security problems, security concerns? Absolutely not.”

Much of the “hidden wiring” of the Canadian economy lies in private hands, and securing it poses a huge challenge, he said. “We need to do a lot more.”

Hampson ponders whether Canada is prepared for a major cyberattack against a seaport or machines in the oilsands that rely on remote-communication technologies.

“I think the short answer is no,” he said. “I mean, yes, we’re getting better at it. But it’s not just being able to thwart and deter those attacks, but how resilient are we?”

The latest federal budget earmarks $875 million over five years, and $238.2 million ongoing, for cybersecurity measures including programs at the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s electronic spy service, as well as more robust protection for small federal departments, agencies and Crown corporations.

The move is applauded as “utterly important” by Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia, senior director for digital economy, technology and innovation at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

However, the chamber wants the government to turn next to helping the private sector bolster its defences.

Bahr-Gedalia said knowing how to predict and prevent problems in the digital sphere is essential.

“It is crucial for businesses to be secure and safe,” she said. “We really want to be ahead of the game, which is so important.”

The chamber is urging the government to spend $1 billion to protect Canada’s critical infrastructure, supply chains and businesses of all sizes from cyberthreats.

This will augment the more than $7 billion already being spent by the private sector on cybersecurity products and services, it says.

It is also calling for $300 million to accelerate the commercialization of such products and services in Canada, and $200 million to build Canada’s future cybersecurity workforce through education, talent development and retention programs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2022.

 

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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