WINNIPEG - Canada's top health officials say the country is not lagging behind other nations in flu preparation and Canada is on track to have a swine flu vaccine by mid-November.
As 150 delegates from across the country began a conference on the virus in Winnipeg Wednesday, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said recent criticism that Canada is unprepared for a second wave of the pandemic is unfounded.
"There have been reports implying that Canada has been slow off the mark in placing its H1N1 vaccine order, that our production schedule is not sufficiently aggressive or that our regulators are being overly cautious," Aglukkaq told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.
"Those reports are simply wrong. We will have H1N1 vaccine available in Canada at around the same time as most other countries. We will have enough vaccine for every Canadian that needs and wants to be immunized."
The government has indicated it plans to use vaccine with an adjuvant, a boosting compound that can allow a half dose or a third of a dose to be used for each person.
Earlier this week, an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal urged the government to use a vaccine without an adjuvant booster in an effort to fast-track the vaccinating of high-risk populations.
But the head of the World Health Organization's vaccine research initiative said Wednesday that the decision by Canada to buy adjuvanted vaccine was reasonable, especially since it isn't clear yet how protective the vaccine on its own will be.
Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny noted that the vaccine to protect against the avian flu virus H5N1 didn't work without an adjuvant unless unmanageably high doses were used.
"I think it was a sensible decision to make," Kieny said from Geneva.
Political critics have slammed the government, saying people in the United States will be able to get a vaccine by mid-October - a month before high-risk Canadian patients are offered the jab.
American Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told NBC's Today show Wednesday morning the U.S. is expecting "a big influx" of swine flu cases this fall even before the vaccine is available to American citizens by mid-October.
However, U.S. officials recently downgraded their estimates of how much vaccine they will have in October, saying their suppliers will not be able to meet early projections of 120 million doses by the middle of next month. Instead, the country expects to have 45 million doses by then - enough for about 30 per cent of the 159 million people in the groups it wants to vaccinate first.
Aglukkaq said in Canada, everything going according to plan.
"Vaccine production remains on schedule," she said. "Every Canadian who wants it, can count on having the access to a safe and effective H1N1 vaccine."
Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer, said Canada has chosen to use an adjuvanted vaccine which will allow it to immunize more people and protect them should the virus mutate.
But he said whether the vaccine is adjuvanted or not makes no difference in the timeline and the vaccine will be ready by mid-November.
That will give people enough time to be immunized against seasonal flu before getting the H1N1 vaccine, he said.
"There will be no delay in approving this vaccine. "
"Nature is always inventive. You never know when it can change. That's why the preparation is important for all the possibilities ... We have the development of vaccine. We have antivirals. We have plans in place."
Officials say the conference in Winnipeg, which ends Thursday, is part of that planning process. They are hoping it will help health-care workers understand the virus better and develop national guidelines on how to deal with it.
But critics say the Conservatives aren't taking the threat of a second wave seriously enough.
Liberal Marc Garneau said having a vaccine in mid-November may be too late for some high-risk patients like pregnant women, health care providers and aboriginals.
"We don't know when H1N1 is going to hit," he said at the party's caucus retreat in Sudbury, Ont.
"To be prudent, we have to be ready for the worst-case situation. At the moment, because of regulatory processes with this government, because they really haven't realized the urgency of what is happening, it's possible H1N1 could hit us early and high-risk patients will not have access to this very important vaccine."
Liberal public health critic Carolyn Bennett said she's concerned the Winnipeg conference is bringing together only those dealing with severe diseases and "there are still very many gaps in the pandemic plan and very many groups feeling totally left out of the loop in the planning."
- With files from Helen Branswell in Toronto