Canada's auditor general has found that an estimated $1 billion in COVID-19 vaccines will expire by the end of December owing to distribution and tracking issues caused by government negligence. Since December 2020, Ottawa has purchased approximately 169 million doses for nearly $5 billion.
With Canadians receiving 84.1 million doses since the vaccine became available for distribution, Auditor General Karen Hogan said that as of May 2022, 32.5 million doses remain unused, and another 13.6 million doses have already expired.
"I would invite all of us back in March of 2020 and the environment going on then when the government entered into advanced purchase agreements," said Hogan at a press conference in Ottawa. There was a global rush to develop a vaccine no one knew which vaccine companies would develop viable vaccines."
Her report reads: "Officials explained that, because of the evolving nature of the pandemic, there was a need to keep buying optional doses, to expand coverage, to accelerate deliveries and to address waning immunity and changes in vaccine administration guidelines, such as shortened booster intervals and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization advice recommending the use of a certain vaccine type."
Hogan articulated that the federal government's system for managing vaccines is partially responsible for the waste. The software program created specifically for the task is VaccineConnect, which the auditor general said did not adequately keep track of doses.
"We also found that minimizing wastage was affected by the agency's delay in implementing important functionalities of VaccineConnect," she said. Deloitte designed and managed the program on a nearly $60-million contract, of which $37.4 million has since been spent.
Conservative MP Kelly Block, the party's procurement critic, commented that the federal government did not do enough to ensure the systems worked correctly. "The real issue was with VaccineConnect because there was no ability to have eyes on where those vaccines were being distributed on the expiry dates, and supply chain visibility was an issue."
Hogan also identified pervasive issues in getting information from provinces and territories on vaccine usage and safety in her report. Many provinces declined to provide information to the Public Health Agency of Canada, vaccine companies and the World Health Organization (WHO).
While the auditor general acknowledged that Health Canada and Procurement Canada quickly and efficiently secured purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers to guarantee enough doses to vaccinate Canadians, she criticized the requirements outlined in these purchase agreements to buy minimum numbers of doses.
"While the organizations involved were successful in securing vaccines and quickly distributing them to the provinces and territories, the Public Health Agency of Canada's efforts to minimize wastage were unsuccessful," added Horgan.
According to her report, Health Canada had a large surplus that the agency expected would happen, leading to vaccine wastage before the country could use them domestically or donate them abroad. They also purchased more doses from Pfizer and Moderna after the fact, further contributing to the vaccine oversupply.
International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan explained that while demand in developing nations was less than they had hoped, it nonetheless exists. However, Hogan found another 21.7 million doses would expire if they failed to identify countries to take them. She cites a lack of demand, with many other wealthy nations trying to donate their doses.
"That market saturated, resulting in the Canadian government not being as successful as they could, but in my view, it was a prudent approach," said Hogan.
The federal government previously claimed it donated 50 million doses during the pandemic, but only 15.3 million went overseas. They also aided developing countries in paying for 90 million more doses.
Sajjan remains optimistic that Canada will find takers for Canada's oversupply of COVID-19 vaccines, despite ongoing challenges in developing nations to vaccinate their populations.
"One of the things that we're focused on now is actually reinforcing the health systems within those nations. So if a pandemic were to come back, we would have the ability to distribute vaccines equitably," said Sajjan.