Saturday, June 19

Canada Has Placed Its First Vaccine Order, but Don’t Expect a ‘Silver Bullet’

For Canadians anxiously craving an inoculation against the coronavirus, this week brought both optimism and words of sobering caution.

The federal government on Wednesday announced the first of many major deals to buy vaccines from two U.S.-based multinational drug companies: Pfizer and Moderna.

There will be “millions” of doses, Anita Anand, the cabinet minister responsible for the deal, said at a news conference. She did not offer any more details. But she and another cabinet minister said the government was negotiating deals with other vaccine makers, including some in Canada.

Last week’s newsletter prompted the former Prime Minister Paul Martin to call me. His father, also Paul Martin, was, as federal health minister, the main player in Canada’s rollout and participation in development of the Salk vaccine.

The younger Mr. Martin, who was infected with polio as a child, had a memory of that time that captures the uncertainty around vaccines.

His father, he said, was usually good spirited at home. But one afternoon in 1955 when Mr. Martin went into his library, his father was unusually distracted and testy. He was told to leave and go see his mother.

From her, Mr. Martin learned that his father was grappling with perhaps the most difficult decision of his life: whether to continue with plans to vaccinate Canada. A batch of vaccines made by Cutter Laboratories, an American company, had been determined to be defective and ended up infecting 40,000 children. About 200 of them were left paralyzed, and 10 died.

As a result, the United States suspended polio vaccination for several months, a decision that led to infections, deaths and paralysis. Ultimately, the elder Mr. Martin was convinced that Connaught’s vaccine was safe, and Canada continued its inoculations without incident.

The stakes, if anything, are greater now as the world rushes to produce a coronavirus vaccine. We all may be called to have patience and realistic expectations.

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