By Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Canada is near the front of the line to get millions of doses of four of the most promising COVID-19 vaccines in development, but the federal government does not plan to make getting a vaccine mandatory, federal cabinet ministers said Monday.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand announced new deals with Maryland-based biotech company Novavax for Canada to buy as many as 76 million doses of its experimental vaccine candidate, and up to 38 million doses of the vaccine in development by Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical company Janssen Inc.

Earlier this month similar deals were signed with U.S. companies Pfizer and Moderna but Anand only revealed Monday that those deals would see Canada access up to 20 million doses of Pfizer’s candidate and up to 56 million doses of Moderna’s version.

A fifth deal with AstraZeneca is almost complete, Anand said, and deals with other companies could also follow. All are racing to research, test and produce vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“In short, when a vaccine is ready, Canada will be ready,” said Anand.

All four of the vaccines Canada has contracts for, as well as the AstraZeneca candidate, are also part of the United States Operation Warp Speed program, which aims to have a vaccine ready for use by the end of the year.

Health Canada’s approval process for any vaccine must still be followed, which will require proof a vaccine is both safe for use and effective at either preventing COVID-19 or reducing the severity of disease.

But Anand said the arrangements put in place with these companies mean if and when one of these vaccines is approved, Canadians will be among the first in line to get it.

“We are prepared to protect Canadians who choose to be vaccinated.”

The key word there is “choose,” with Health Minister Patty Hajdu ending speculation Monday Canada might force Canadians to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We believe that people have a choice in Canada about whether or not to be vaccinated,” Hajdu said. “But we also believe we have an important responsibility as Canadians to take vaccinations to protect our communities.”

Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba all have some mandatory vaccines kids must have to attend school, but beyond that public health officials rely on educating people about the safety and value of immunization programs. Hajdu acknowledged that the more people who get vaccinated the better, though she did not say what percentage of Canadians she believes would need to get vaccinated to create so-called herd immunity.

That is where enough people are immune to a disease that it cannot spread easily, so even people without immunity have low odds of catching it.

Hajdu added that Canada does not have the same level of skepticism towards vaccinations as is seen in some other places. Still, Canada’s vaccination rates fall below the stated national goals. The aim is for 80 per cent of seniors and high-risk adults to get the influenza vaccine each year. In 2018-19, 70 per cent of seniors and 43 per cent of high-risk adults between 18 and 64 were immunized against the flu.

In 2009, during the H1N1 flu pandemic, about two in five Canadians got vaccinated.

There are more than 160 COVID-19 vaccines in development around the world but only about two dozen are being tested on humans so far, including the four Canada is now in line to buy. Various vaccines use different technologies to try to train human immune systems to detect and fight off the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Anand said signing contracts for a number of different types of potential vaccines is critical because nobody knows which vaccine or vaccines will end up being approved. Pfizer and Moderna have started Phase 3 trials — most of the time there are only three phases of clinical testing, with the third phase being the biggest. Johnson & Johnson and Novavax are both in Phase 2 trials, which are conducted on smaller numbers of volunteers.

Monday’s announcement came just days after a collaboration between the National Research Council and Chinese vaccine-maker CanSino finally collapsed, taking that possible vaccine out of likely contention for use here.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was at the National Research Council’s Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre in Montreal Monday morning, which earlier this year was given $44 million to upgrade its facilities in part so it could produce the CanSino vaccine for Canadians if clinical trials proved it safe and effective.

The NRC had given CanSino a license to use a Canadian biological product as part of the COVID-19 vaccine and CanSino was going to provide samples of the vaccine for clinical trials at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at Dalhousie University. Trudeau announced that partnership in May, but China never approved shipments of the vaccine to be exported to Canada and the NRC killed the deal last week.

Trudeau said the NRC partnership with CanSino had been well established and did good work on a vaccine for Ebola and said he is “disappointed” it did not work out this time.

“Unfortunately China didn’t grant export permits for the vaccine to Canada so we are continuing to focus on many other paths that are very promising in terms of developing a vaccine,” he said.

The updated NRC lab in Montreal is to be able to produce up to 250,000 doses of vaccines a month as of November.

Trudeau announced additional funding to build a new facility at the Montreal lab over the next two years, to produce even more vaccines within Canada.

This content was originally published here.