The federal government’s failed collaboration with a vaccine manufacturing company in China early in the pandemic has led to a delay of nearly two years in efforts to create a made-in-Canada COVID-19 vaccine.
Government documents obtained by The Fifth Estate show that Canadian officials wasted months waiting for a proposed vaccine to arrive from China for further testing and spent millions upgrading a production facility that never made a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) signed an agreement with Tianjin-based CanSino Biologics in early May 2020 to “fast-track the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine in Canada for emergency pandemic use.”
The CanSino vaccine, which had been created by the scientific research arm of China’s military, was to be shipped to Canada for human trials that May. If successful, the vaccine was to be manufactured at a temporary facility in Montreal that the NRC had committed $44 million to upgrade.
- WATCH: The Fifth Estate | The Vaccine: What went wrong? on CBC-TV and CBC Gem Thursday at 9 p.m.
The documents reveal that the NRC, the scientific research arm of the Canadian government, was gearing up for production of the vaccine — even before the contract was signed and human trials had started — estimating it could be manufacturing doses by summer 2020.
At first, the NRC would be producing doses for human trials in Canada, then later, according to the contract, “for front-line responders and Canadians as soon as they are available.”
“Once fully operational, in the event that CanSino proceeds, NRC will be able to produce 70,000 to 100,000 doses per month,” the NRC briefs said.
The NRC asked Dr. Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Center of Vaccinology in Halifax, to design the clinical trials for CanSino in Canada.
“The NRC and CanSino had previous collaborations well before the pandemic,” Halperin said in an interview with The Fifth Estate. “That was leveraged into a working relationship to say: ‘Can that be expanded for the current crisis?’ “
Vaccine stuck in China
As the months progressed, the documents also show that the NRC was working to increase the number of doses the facility could produce for the public.
But ultimately, the CanSino vaccine would never get to Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the deal to Canadians on May 16, 2020. But a federal government memo later that same month reveals the Canadian Embassy in Beijing was still working to get the vaccine cleared by China’s customs.
“CanSino vaccines are still with customs in China,” the memo said. “Embassy has a [meeting] tomorrow. Assuming they get through customs [tomorrow], they can be put on a flight on the 27th.”
But the vaccine candidate was not put on a plane on May 27.
That same day, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou — a high-profile tech executive in China — lost an appeal to the B.C. Supreme Court arguing against her arrest in Canada. Meng had been detained in Vancouver in 2018 on U.S. bank fraud charges.
(Meng was returned to China last month after signing a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney General’s Office. Shortly after, two Canadians held in prisons in China were allowed to return to Canada.)
“I was incredulous that the government had chosen to partner with not only CanSino, but with China, after all the things that had happened,” Conservative MP Michael Chong said.
Chong has served as the party’s foreign affairs critic and on the parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations.
“It was clear by May of 2020 that China was not a reliable partner,” he said.
On June 19, 2020, only weeks after Meng lost her court appeal, China accused Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor of espionage. They had already been held in Chinese prisons without charges for more than 500 days.
A war of words ensued between the governments in China and Canada, with officials from each country criticizing the other.
WATCH | McGill professor says connection to China’s army risky:
By June 26, NRC bureaucrats acknowledged in briefs that the “shipment of vaccine material has stalled.”
By early July, the CanSino candidate was still the only vaccine Health Canada had approved for human trials in Canada. NRC officials continued to hope it would arrive later that month.
“CanSino remains very committed to the Canadian clinical trials,” the brief said.
Into August, NRC documents reveal, officials continued working on manufacturing plans, despite the fact that the vaccine candidate had “not yet been approved by Chinese customs for shipment to Canada.”
Customs not the problem
Ben Fung, a security researcher at McGill University in Montreal and an outspoken China critic, said he doubts that customs was the issue, and argued that Canada should have known partnering with CanSino was risky because of the company’s connection to both China’s military and government.
“So when they say customs is stopping the vaccines, of course this is not the case,” Fung said. “The [Chinese Communist Party] is upper management.”
WATCH | The original plans for the CanSino-Canada vaccine:
At the Center for Vaccinology, Halperin suspected that the project had become wrapped up in the diplomatic tensions between Canada and China. When he saw the vaccine had been shipped to Pakistan and Russia without issue, he knew the vaccine was not coming to Canada.
“Then we knew it wasn’t just the right paperwork and bureaucracy,” Halperin said. “It became clear that that wasn’t the case, but that took another month to two months to finally decide that no, it must be politics. It can’t be anything else.”
The Globe and Mail first reported on Aug. 25, 2020, that the NRC had abandoned its collaboration with CanSino because China wouldn’t let the vaccine doses come to Canada.
WATCH | CanSino’s CEO on why the vaccine didn’t come to Canada:
In an interview with The Fifth Estate, CanSino CEO Dr. Xuefeng Yu said he did not know why the vaccine wasn’t allowed to be sent to Canada.
“I don’t work for the government, either side. I really have no clue what’s going on behind the doors of the department of … each country.”
Yu said that by the time the shipment was delayed into August, there was no point proceeding with trials in Canada. By then, CanSino was already in Phase 3 global trials elsewhere.
Millions of doses promised
Trudeau and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains held a media conference at the NRC on Aug. 31, 2020, touting the Montreal lab that had been upgraded to produce the CanSino vaccine.
Even though the federal government no longer had a vaccine partner, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the facility would “enable the preliminary production of 250,000 doses of vaccine per month starting in November 2020.”
However, that facility did not produce 250,000 doses of vaccine in November 2020, or any month since.
“One would hope that when the prime minister speaks, he knows what he’s talking about and it’s accurate,” NDP MP and health critic Don Davies said in an interview with The Fifth Estate.
“So he either was mistaken or he was misleading, and I think it’s incumbent on him to explain which of those it is. What we do know is that we didn’t produce 250,000 doses in Canada in November in Montreal.”
To this day, no vaccines have been produced at that NRC facility.
In August 2020, Trudeau also announced that a new NRC lab in Montreal would be producing two million doses a month by mid-2021.
That has also not happened. According to the NRC, vaccines will not be produced there until 2022, at the earliest.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not answer when asked to explain the discrepancy between the promised production numbers and what happened. The prime minister and his ministers also declined interview requests about Canada’s early vaccine production plans, including with the NRC and CanSino.
The NRC has said the U.S.-based vaccine developer Novavax will be its new partner for this facility, but Health Canada has not approved its vaccine yet.
The NRC declined interview requests with its officials but provided written responses to questions.
“It was deemed prudent to seize the opportunity to obtain access to CanSino’s vaccine candidate — one of the most advanced at the time,” the NRC said.
The NRC also acknowledged that the failure of the CanSino deal forced it to scrap its original clinical trial manufacturing plans.
“I think there’s no doubt it has set us back years,” Davies said. “When you’re in a global pandemic, that is deadly, that costs lives.”
CanSino seizes Fifth Estate interview
Yu is proud of CanSino’s COVID-19 vaccine that’s going into millions of arms around the world.
The company CEO sat down with The Fifth Estate for a wide-ranging interview, discussing his roots in Canada’s pharmaceutical industry, his family who still lives in Toronto and his research work with China’s military.
“I see them as collaborators, it’s just a research institute, right?” Yu said.
But when the cameras turned off, he was clearly not happy with how the interview unfolded.
As the CBC freelance camera crew packed up their gear in the CanSino Biologics offices in Tianjin, China, company officials seized the interview recording.
CanSino deleted half of the recording before giving it back 10 days later. Luckily, The Fifth Estate recorded the entire interview from Toronto.
China officials may have denied the CanSino vaccine candidate to Canada, but Canadian scientists and labs are still supporting CanSino’s COVID-19 vaccine, which is being used in at least nine countries.
The Center for Vaccinology in Halifax continues to work for CanSino, with Halperin running the company’s Phase 3 global trials on a $3.5-million contract.
“That vaccine will likely never come to Canada at this stage. It’s going to be used around the world in other places, but not in Canada,” Halperin said. “I look at this as a part of Canada’s contribution to the global battle against COVID-19.”
- If you have tips on this or any other story, please contact The Fifth Estate team.
As omicron variant spreads, Manitoba couple feel 'criminalized' after return from South Africa – CBC.ca
A Brandon, Man., couple who are quarantining in a Toronto hotel after a recent trip to South Africa say they feel “criminalized” as travellers after the federal government placed restrictions on 10 African countries due to the presence of a new coronavirus variant of concern.
A day after Lennard and Charlotte Skead left for South Africa, where they’re both originally from, the World Health Organization released information about a new coronavirus variant of concern called omicron, or the B.1.1.529 variant, which was discovered in the country.
The couple, who were in South Africa to access medical care, made several attempts shortly after their arrival to find an airline to bring them back to Canada.
“We were extremely frustrated in not being able to find much [airline tickets] because of course there were hundreds of people, hundreds of Canadians there wanting to get back. Calls to the airlines took hours on hold; it was total chaos,” Lennard Skead said.
On their trip back to Canada, they had to take six COVID-19 tests, which all came back negative, before being allowed to re-enter the country.
Skead says he just feels grateful they made it back.
“We were just lucky,” he said, although it cost them a lot of money to return — a total of almost $23,500 so far for flights, COVID-19 tests and hotels.
In addition, their bags were lost and the food they’ve been served in the hotel consistently contains allergens, which the couple has brought to the attention of staff.
Restrictions meant to protect Canadians
Health Canada announced on Nov. 26 that foreign nationals who had travelled through any of the seven affected countries — including South Africa — in the last 14 days will not be permitted entry to Canada, in order to slow the spread of the omicron variant in Canada.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home, but they must quarantine and be tested for COVID-19.
Four days later, three other nations were added to the list of countries with travel restrictions, which went into effect on Wednesday.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told a news conference on Friday that Canada has had strong border measures throughout the pandemic to protect the health and safety of Canadians.
“I believe, and that’s what we hear from public health officials, that what we’ve announced last week on Friday [Nov. 26] and on Tuesday is currently the best set of measures, given the necessity and capability with which we are facing when we’re dealing with these issues,” he said.
Duclos said travellers from the 10 countries should expect to be tested for COVID-19 when they arrive in Canada and be ready to isolate.
“It will take a few days before we are able to test all targeted travellers, but we’re ramping up our capacity quickly and testing more and more travellers every day,” he said.
Meanwhile, Skead, who is three days into his quarantine, believes travellers like himself and his wife are being treated poorly.
He says he wishes there was a grace period for travellers who were already abroad when restrictions were announced.
“My experience from landing in Toronto Pearson [International Airport] right up into the hotel has made us feel criminalized,” Skead said.
“It has made us feel as though we are not welcome in our own country and that we are carrying some kind of terrible disease that’s going to be the end of the world, despite our six negative COVID-19 tests.”
Planning a trip over the holidays? Expect airport delays, sudden travel restrictions, experts say – CBC.ca
As concerns around the omicron variant grow, infectious diseases expert Dr. Gerald Evans says that now is the time for Canadians to reconsider upcoming plans — particularly if they include international travel.
“What we need to do — all of us — is to reduce the opportunities for transmission to occur,” said Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Hidayet Mugjenkar and his family were set to fly to South Africa late last month to visit his ailing parents. They were forced to cancel when the federal government announced a ban on flights entering Canada from several countries in southern Africa.
“I really just wanted to go and see them because I don’t know when we’ll see them again,” he told Cross Country Checkup. “Now, with all this travel ban and with COVID, it’s just hard to predict when you’ll be able to fly back again.”
Following a previous announcement on restrictions for some flights from Africa, the federal government this week announced new testing requirements for those entering the country from outside Canada and the United States.
Travellers will now be swabbed upon arrival and required to quarantine until they receive a negative result. That’s in addition to the existing pre-departure requirement of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival in Canada.
“It’s a little bit like déjà vu all over again,” Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, said, reflecting on travel during the early days of the pandemic.
“We’re just starting to understand this, but we don’t have much data. So what the governments have been doing is reacting very swiftly — maybe too swiftly — imposing some travel bans.”
The U.S. government has also announced that Canadians and other foreign visitors must now provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within 24 hours of departure, regardless of vaccination status, to enter the country as of Monday.
Know the travel restrictions at your destination
The latest data on omicron suggests that the variant may be more transmissible, but changes in the severity of illness compared with other variants remain unclear.
Still, Evans cautions against international travel as the situation shifts.
“In a few weeks, with omicron already well established on many different continents, we may be looking at the potential for travel restrictions being brought in that are more widespread or perhaps more onerous than what exists at the moment,” he said.
Travel bans have largely targeted countries in southern Africa, where scientists sequenced the new variant late last month. Evans notes that countries across Europe, including France and Germany, have seen recent spikes in COVID-19 cases.
That’s a concern echoed by Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who says some countries have not yet focused their screening to detect omicron.
“They might be reporting no [omicron] cases, but when you get there, there might actually be a lot of transmission that might affect your ability to come home,” she said.
In response to the omicron variant, France now requires all travellers from outside the European Union to provide a negative COVID-19 test.
Dimanche encourages anyone travelling this holiday season to be aware of rules and restrictions in their destination country.
‘Travellers don’t like the unknown’
Canada’s latest measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 through travel could also snare travellers at airports in this country, Dimanche warns.
Testing of arriving travellers will take place at airports across the country, according to the federal government, but he says many operators are wondering how that will be implemented — and whether it will delay passengers attempting to board connecting flights or reach their destination.
“There is so much uncertainty because we don’t know how this will be processed. We don’t know how long it will take. We don’t know if people will have to be stuck at the airport before they get the result of the test,” Dimanche said.
“All of those are unknowns, and travellers don’t like the unknown.”
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the rollout of the additional testing would be uneven at first, with certain airports better equipped to handle the new rule.
“Let me be very clear: All travellers should be expected to be tested on arrival. We will not be able to test every targeted traveller overnight. It will take a few days,” Duclos said.
When Mugjenkar travelled with his family last year to South Africa, they ended up trapped in the country for four months after rules had changed. Leaving Canada, they had been cleared for travel.
As the omicron variant makes travel unpredictable once again, he says he’s not eager to repeat what happened last time.
“We’ve got friends that are actually stranded in South Africa at the moment and they can’t fly back into Calgary, and they have no idea when the flights will reopen,” he said.
“We’re OK with the fact that the flights are cancelled, so we’re just hoping they understand the variant better and things will open up again sooner.”
Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC News, Ashley Fraser and Steve Howard.
Frustration emerges over new COVID-19 related travel rules – Globalnews.ca
About a week after Tope Akindele returned home to Edmonton from Nigeria, the Canadian government introduced a laundry list of new COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“I don’t think it was thought through,” Akindele said.
He arrived back in Canada on November 22 and eight days later, Ottawa announced a strict set of rules for travellers from 10 African countries where the Omicron variant was first identified.
Foreign nationals who have been in these countries in the last 14 days are not allowed into Canada and any Canadians travelling home from these countries will have to be tested at the airport and quarantine while awaiting their results.
COVID-19: Essential, vaccinated workers forced to quarantine amid new travel rules
“Some people were randomly selected to be tested. When we’re coming in — I wasn’t. We were not randomly selected,” Akindele explained.
Akindele was bringing his mother to Canada. When the pair arrived in Calgary before connecting to Edmonton they were told quarantining wasn’t required.
“Upon return, I resumed work. I’ve been working from home — no need to go anywhere,” he said.
But days later he said Health Canada called telling him he needs to quarantine.
“I said ‘no,’ at the time I returned I wasn’t required to quarantine, but all the same, I’ve been home,” he explained.
Health Canada also instructed him to take a COVID test, which needs to be booked through 811.
Akindele says he hasn’t been able to get through. He also doesn’t drive.
Only adding to the stress, he says a security guard showed up at his door to make sure he’s at home and that he had booked a test.
“The guy banged on the door so aggressively. I was like, who does that? Who is this?” Akindele said.
“In my head, I was like, why send (security) when you could have sent someone to come take a swab? Same trip.”
The new rules, particularly around testing, have created a lot of confusion and frustration.
Travel agent Lesley Paull said she’s fielding many questions, but her clients aren’t cancelling their trips.
“A lot of people are tired. They want to go, they’re double vaccinated or triple vaccinated and they’re going,” Paull said.
“It’s more, what is this variant going to do in the future? Is it going to be something or not?”
Paull said ultimately it’s just a matter of getting another PCR test on arrival.
“You’re not paying for that it’s just the inconvenience of getting another test and waiting for the results,” she said.
“It’s still just really mass confusion that’s the biggest problem with it all I think.”
As for Akindele, he believes at this point in the pandemic the system needs to be better.
COVID-19: Confusion, frustration grows over new travel rules
“It’s kind of stressful if you travel during this period of COVID and that’s why I understand when they say don’t travel if it’s not essential,” he said.
Health Canada said it will take a few days before all targeted travellers will be tested, but it’s ramping up capacity quickly and testing more and more travellers every day.
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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