Divining Providence: The multiple aims behind Brian Pallister’s vaccine gambit

As a former insurance broker, Brian Pallister knows something about managing risk.

So when the premier describes a deal to buy a COVID-19 vaccine that’s many months away from approval as “an insurance policy,” it’s fair for Manitobans to wonder what exactly the salesman-turned-politician is trying to accomplish.

On Thursday, Calgary-based biotech company Providence Therapeutics revealed it has a deal to sell Manitoba as many as two million doses of a vaccine that just started undergoing clinical trials in January.

Pending the vaccine’s approval, the deal gives Manitoba first crack at 200,000 Providence doses and an option to purchase more, assuming federal regulators approve the vaccine late this year or early in 2022.

According to Providence CEO Brad Sorenson, Manitoba plunked down a 20-per-cent, non-refundable deposit and also agreed to “two other milestone payments based on approval and delivery.” 

The premier has agreed to make the financial terms of the deal public at a later date. 

On Thursday, Pallister said Manitoba had no choice but to procure its own vaccine supply as an insurance policy, given the slow rollout of the two vaccines approved for use in Canada so far and lingering skepticism about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to immunize every Canadian who wants a needle by the fall.

“I am grateful to the federal government for the vaccines that we have received here in Manitoba, but the approach they have taken means that when it comes to getting vaccinated against COVID, Canada first is in danger of becoming Canada last,” Pallister said Thursday at a press briefing.

The premier complained, as he often has in the past, the Trudeau government won’t let provinces procure their own supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and other vaccines pending federal approval.

“The federal government made a choice early on and they had their reasons for it. And the choice was to block provinces from being able to buy vaccines. We tried. We have tried. We have never stopped trying, but we’ve been refused. The door was slammed in our face repeatedly and I know other provinces have tried as well.”

A medication vial is shown in this undated handout image provided by Providence Therapeutics. Human clinical trials have begun in Toronto for a proposed COVID-19 vaccine by a Canadian company. Providence Therapeutics of Calgary says 60 subjects will be monitored for 13 months, with the first results expected next month. (Providence Therapeutics/The Canadian Press)

To take Pallister at face value, the federal government can not be trusted to follow through on its immunization promise.

This does not jibe with the projection made by Manitoba’s own vaccination implementation task force, which conservatively projects 70 per cent of the adults in the province — about 725,000 people — will be fully immunized by the end of 2021 even if Pfizer and Moderna are the only vaccines approved for use in Canada.

The task force projects those numbers may improve if any of five other vaccines pending federal approval make it through the last regulatory hoop. Vaccines developed by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Medicago, Novavax and Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline are awaiting federal approval.

Targeting the Trudeau government

Assuming the premier is aware Providence doses may only arrive after everyone in Manitoba gets their shots, the question remains whether Pallister has a different goal in mind.

Embarrassing the federal government is a strong contender, especially as Canada lags behind dozens of countries when it comes to the proportion of the population that’s gotten shots.

On Thursday, federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand responded to the premier by pointing out Manitoba is free to purse whatever deal it wishes with pharmaceutical companies that haven’t signed deals with Canada.

“Let me be clear: At no point has the federal government prevented provinces from undertaking their own procurements,” Anand said in a statement.

Closer to home, opposition leaders accused the premier of showmanship.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Providence deal fell apart in six months. Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont opined Pallister ought to know better.

“It’s irresponsible for the premier to be doing this, in part, because I think he’s giving Manitobans false hope,” Lamont said.

Human trials began in January

Providence began the first phase of human trials in January, when it gave shots to 60 adult volunteers at a clinical-trial site in Toronto.

Pending regulatory approval, a second-phase with adults over 65, youth under 18 and pregnant women could start in May.

Some scientific observers are not impressed.

“What I can see in terms of sample size and plans for the next phase would not pass a master’s degree thesis proposal,” Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said Thursday. 

“There’s no evidence of an ability for this to come to fruition. This 60-person clinical trial is a red flag.”

University of Toronto infectious-disease professor Mario Ostrowski, who worked Providence on pre-clinical trials in animals, defended the vaccine’s development.

“It’s a really a great vaccine technology that has held up in the trials,” he said, comparing the Providence product to the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.

Vaccine from Providence Therapeutics still must pass through regulatory hoops before approval. 2:40

There is also the question of whether Providence stands to gain more from Manitoba’s investment than the other way around.

The Calgary company, which is looking for cash to finance its vaccine development, hopes other provinces will follow Manitoba’s lead.

“Whatever we get from the Canadian provinces in the next week or so, we’re going to lock that down and then we’re going to start taking orders outside of Canada,” Providence CEO Sorenson said Thursday. 

“That’s the business plan that we’re proceeding with.”

Pallister urged other provinces to join Manitoba. Even his closest allies — the two other Western Canadian conservative premiers — appear uninterested.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said his province has already invested in vaccine production in Saskatoon. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said his province isn’t about to place an order, even though he sees the value in funding more domestic vaccine production.

“I believe that if we could get vaccine production going here, even if it wasn’t until 2022, we could resell surplus doses on the international market,” Kenney said.

This is logical, as there are eight billion people on the planet and many live in nations that are doing even worse than Canada when it comes to administering vaccines. So even if the Providence vaccine gets approved late in the game and Manitoba winds up with doses it doesn’t need, the province likely won’t be stuck with a surplus product.

The emergence of even more COVID variants and the need for booster shots effective against mutations could make Pallister’s purchase even less of a gamble. 

For now, it’s a public-relations coup. That may be good enough for a premier whose popularity has plunged during the pandemic.