A Yellowknife company is ready to help speed up the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines for provinces and territories – if more willing buyers step forward.

Clean energy firm Great Canadian Boreal Enterprise (GCBE) has stepped into the role of vaccine broker, acting as a middleman between vaccine producers and provinces, territories and countries looking to buy vaccines.

Through connections with the supply chains of pharmaceutical companies worldwide, the local company gained access to the vaccine broker network, said Kirby Marshall, one of the owners of GCBE.

A bureaucratic wall of doubt among government officials is hobbling efforts to broker sales of vaccines directly to provinces and territories, said Kirby Marshall, a Yellowknife resident and owner of Great Canadian Boreal Enterprise. photo courtesy of Kirby Marshall

Marshall is also the founder and CEO of IT company Global Storm.

Spot market for vaccines

The vaccine broker network centres on a spot market, a transaction system in which commodities are traded for immediate delivery.

“In history, they happen to grow around large events, and this one is no different,” Marshall said. “A vaccine manufacturer – let’s say it’s Pfizer – can’t get rid of it right away so they would try to sell it to the spot market. Companies are familiar with dealing with large amounts of products and moving them around the world. Typically a manufacturer or distributor would get in touch with a broker. They then make a connection to a buyer and they can only be sold to a sovereign nation (or provinces and territories), not companies.”

By the nature of spot markets, and due to the fact that most vaccines must be stored at very low temperatures, the purchase process goes fast. It lasts as along as eight hours and as short as minutes, Marshall said.

Brokerage moves fast

“A factory might produce some vaccines and have them ready to go. So a buyer needs to react very quickly. With Pfizer they have to be stored at -80 C and used in weeks. They can’t sit around. These are hot commodities,” he said.

The process starts when the broker receives information about a shipment of vaccines, their price and targeted delivery date. Once the broker finds a potential buyer, it asks for an email that expresses interest in the sale. The seller expects the broker to vet the buyer to ensure their interest.

The buyer then writes a letter of interest, which reserves the shipment for them. 
They’re then given such information as the product source, lot numbers, expiration dates and a sales purchase agreement.

The shipment is validated by an inspection company like SGS, Marshall said.
Payment for the shipment goes into a third-party escrow account and after the inspection report is cleared by the buyer, the payment is received and the vaccines are shipped.

One deal that Marshall started to work on in January was for six million doses of Pfizer at $11.56 per dose.

“We had about eight hours to close the transaction. When we said we couldn’t meet that deadline, it was gone. It went through another broker. It was sold in less than one second.”

In its capacity as a broker, GCBE has not yet closed any vaccine deals out of the more than 100 countries it has reached out to over the last few weeks, Marshall said. It has been in contact with 30 others.

Access to millions of doses

He currently has access to three shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine and one shipment of Pfizer.

The AstraZeneca is in three separate loads. One is for 180 million doses at $13.50 per dose and another is for 40 million doses at $15.51 per dose. Both are available immediately.

A third is for 66 million doses at $6.43 per dose, available in two to three weeks.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine has not yet been approved for use by Health Canada.

The Pfizer shipment consists of six million doses at $14.47 per dose and is available immediately.

Of particular frustration to Marshall is the struggle to broker vaccine sales with Canadian jurisdictions.

Bureaucratic barriers

“Canada has bought five times more than we need but the vaccines are delayed,” he said. “A tranche came up of six million doses of Pfizer for immediate delivery at $11.57 per dose (in January), which is an extremely good price. We then reached out to two provinces we were talking to. They came back and said no. I got rather upset because… to me, it was just small-minded bureaucrats who are in doubt and not able to see beyond what’s in front of them,” Marshall said.

Even though Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said on Jan. 12 that the federal government isn’t trying to stop provinces from purchasing their own vaccines or PPE, Marshall believes Ottawa is “strong arming” provinces and territories against looking at the private market to procure their own vaccines.

Anand’s comments were in response to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney saying he would look into securing deals with vaccine manufacturers who don’t have agreements with the federal government.

“We’re Canadian. I’ve been running small businesses for 40 years. I want these vaccines to go to Canadians. We’re being stymied at every turn,” said Marshall. “The federal government won’t even talk to us. Complete wall. At least some of the provinces are talking to us. We’re just not able to break through the fear and doubt that this can’t be real.

“I believe if our information got in front of Doug Ford or Jason Kenney. they would be able to make their own decisions. Right now those decisions are being made by their bureaucrats. I don’t even know the reason why they wouldn’t want to proceed. We’re talking about Canadians’ lives. I know of no other reason that Ford could come up with other than ‘We didn’t know about this, (but) now we can make up our own mind.’ This is too important not to at least look at, and we’re trying. I have one guy who made over 30 phone calls to the Ontario government.”

Damien Healy, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services’ vaccine rollout, said the GNWT relies on federal procurement for its vaccines.

However, he did not respond to an inquiry as to whether the government would consider buying vaccines independently if that meant more could be acquired faster.

Vaccine brokerage harms health priorities, says prof

Marc-André Gagnon, an associate professor of social and health policy at Carleton University in Ottawa, regards the vaccine brokerage as “complete nonsense.”

Even if a broker can sell vaccines to a province or territory at a price lower than the federal government would pay, doing so goes against the priorities of public health. Ignoring those priorities risks allowing the virus to further spread and mutate, he contended.

While Gagnon said it’s understandable that provinces want more autonomy and are feeling frustrated with the uncertainties related to vaccine delivery delays, if provinces and territories buy vaccines independently it would pit them against each other.

“If we end up playing the same (vaccine nationalism) game inside Canada as on the international level, we’ll have the richest provinces paying more and getting them faster.

“We’ve been in this game before,” Gagnon said. “The way we do procurement for patented drugs, in the past, drug companies played provinces and territories against each other. Ontario was more advanced with negotiations. (Companies) would give the largest rebate to Ontario so they start reimbursing the drug faster and then it puts pressure on other provinces. We ended up with some provinces getting lower rebates. Then there’s pressure from your own population.

“Since 2010, the Pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance was saying we were being fooled around by drug companies. They developed the alliance to negotiate collectively to make sure everyone got the same price. It’s an agreement between provinces to avoid competing against other provinces and working together. But if you get out of this agreement it might go way beyond Covid vaccines. It would scrap the agreement made 10 years ago that allowed significant rebates for patented drugs. It would destroy the coalition and bargaining power that Canadians had with drug companies.”

Vaccine production plant project

GCBE is also pursuing a project to build Covid-19 vaccine production plants in Edmonton, Arkansas and Alabama.

The proposed plant in Alberta would be a 18,581-square-metre facility at the Edmonton International Airport and the two smaller plants in the southeast states would be 9,290 square metres each.

“Our manufacturing project is predicated on getting a large Covid-19 order from a vaccine maker or from COVAX,” Marshall said.

COVAX is the global consortium led by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and international vaccine alliance organization Gavi, that seeks to bring governments and vaccine manufacturers together to ensure countries have access to Covid-19 vaccines.

“Our goal is to manufacture vaccines at cost. We just want that order to build the plant and to pay for the operational expenses and supplies while we make the Covid-19 vaccine.”

Most of the manufacturing share to produce 400 million doses could be handled by the plant in Edmonton and once the order size is large enough the two others could come online.

Marshall estimates the three-facility project would cost around $900 million and the money for it could come from a bankable financial instrument from COVAX that would be backed by the WHO.

Prospect of vaccine production, job creation

“Nine-hundred million dollars is a lot of money but it’s not a lot compared to the value of what is produced,” he said. “We want Canada to give us (almost) $1 billion so we can build a plant in Canada and hire hundreds of Canadians and generate millions in tax revenues. We will generate vaccines to give to COVAX, Canadians and the world. Is it better to outsource or for Canadians to build it? The second is better, of course.”

GCBE has spoken with federal bureaucrats about the production facility plan but made little progress.

Marshall worries that only one or two months remains in the window of opportunity for the idea, as new plants are being built elsewhere in the world and soon no more manufacturing capacity will be needed.

“With one little check of the box the federal government can turn that around. We can start manufacturing in nine months. We can have output starting in nine to 12 months. Canada can certainly make the decision to support vaccine manufacturing in Canada,” he said.

In principle, Gagnon supports the GCBE plan and said that for years he has been calling for more domestic production of vaccines.

“We need to develop public manufacturing capacity,” he said. “At least to protect the provinces or the country against problematic corporate strategies, and to help in case of shortages. (But) if we try to do this now it would be very complicated. It’s not just about building an assembly line with a lab and start producing something. The expertise to do that is very important. But it’s very hard to do right now without the collaboration of the drug companies.”  

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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