(Adds comment on new virus variants from experts advising Ontario government and from deputy PM)
OTTAWA, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Canada said on Thursday it expects a further delay in Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine deliveries in coming weeks, prompting protests from provincial leaders in charge of administering inoculations.
Ottawa, which had initially said Pfizer would deliver 4 million doses by the end of March, told the provinces on Thursday it would now be 3.5 million doses.
Tensions have been growing over the slow rollout of Canada’s vaccination program, caused in part by Pfizer cutting its promised deliveries for January and February.
Canada has made deals to buy more doses per capita than any other nation, but only two vaccines have so far been approved by the regulator - Pfizer’s and Moderna Inc’s.
“The federal government is failing Canadians. This is a grim situation that seems to be getting worse every week,” said Tyler Shandro, Alberta’s health minister.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Pfizer “has let us down tremendously” and called for “a loud voice to make sure we get our fair share of vaccines.”
Federal officials told reporters the vaccine dose figures had been given to the provinces for planning purposes.
“(Pfizer) have assured us we will receive four million doses ... the rub is the numbers don’t add up to four million at this time,” said Major General Dany Fortin, who is helping lead the inoculation campaign.
The reason for the discrepancy is Pfizer’s assumption that six doses can be extracted from each vial rather than the usual five, an alteration Canadian regulators may not approve.
“Pfizer is very much aware of that and will ... scale up their number (of deliveries) if that is what is required,” Fortin said.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government is still on track to inoculate every Canadian by the end of September, and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been speaking directly with vaccine manufacturers.
“The prime minister himself just spoke with the heads of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. We will keep on working,” Freeland said during question period in the House of Commons.
A special type of syringe is needed to retrieve that sixth dose, which would otherwise be wasted. Canada has ordered 40 million of them, with two million expected to arrive next week, federal officials said.
In a statement, Pfizer said it remained on track to meet first-quarter shipment objectives.
Canada is also due to receive two million doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine by March 31 and said the entire country should have been inoculated at some point in September.
Canada has recorded a total of 19,533 COVID-19 deaths and 761,226 infections so far.
Pressure on hospitals in some hot spots is receding, experts advising Ontario said in briefing materials published on Thursday, but new, more contagious variants are a growing concern.
The B.1.1.7 variant first identified in Britain is spreading in Ontario and is “a significant threat to control of the pandemic”, the experts said. (Reporting by David ljunggren in Ottawa and Allison Martell in Toronto; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Bill Berkrot and Marguerita Choy)