Less than 24 hours after the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in British Columbia, the provincial health officer was able to find something truly positive to say at one of her daily briefings.
This occurred even as the pandemic death count continued to rise.
“What this means is we now have a safe and effective vaccine that has been approved for use here in Canada and is available here in British Columbia,” Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters on December 14.
“And this is momentous news and the first step in our path to protecting people most at risk in our communities and taking the pressure off our health-care system so that care is available for all of us who need it across the province.”
The following day, there was even more excitement when a 64-year-old residential care aide, Nisha Yunus, received the province’s first COVID-19 vaccination as Henry and the vaccine-rollout overseer, Dr. Ross Brown, applauded.
The speed with which this vaccine was produced is truly astonishing. On CKNW Radio, University of Alberta health-law expert Timothy Caulfield compared this scientific achievement with sending human beings to the moon.
But don’t kid yourself. Despite the euphoria, the arrival of the vaccine does not mark the end of the long nightmare that we’ve been living through.
As of December 15, there had already been 668 deaths in B.C. And with just 4,000 vaccines in the limited first round, it’s going to take many months before everyone who wants to be immunized to receive their required two shots.
And even then, with the recently approved Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination, it takes weeks after the second dose before it’s fully effective. That’s why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that people continue wearing face masks in public indoor spaces, maintain physical distancing, and continue proper hand-washing hygiene.
“I can’t tell how exciting this is to know that this start of this new phase of being able to protect people is beginning here in B.C. and in Canada,” Henry said on December 14. “As we know, the global pandemic has meant a year like no other for all of us. And we are all doing things that we have never done before.”
However, she added a cautionary note—emphasizing that danger lurks every time people get together.
“There is risk in our communities across the province right now and across the country and around the globe,” Henry declared. “No event or gathering is completely safe right now. And we need to be aware of that because the virus continues to circulate in our communities and, tragically, people continue to lose their loved ones to this virus.”
Long-term efficacy is not known
Canada has secured supply deals with seven vaccine manufacturers to date. On December 8, Health Canada approved the U.S.-German Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those 16 years of age and older after a two-month review of the company’s clinical-trial data. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the same vaccine on December 11. This vaccine has a 94.7 percent efficacy rate.
Weekly vaccine shipments to all provincial health authorities will start on December 21, with subsequent deliveries for priority groups—probably including essential workers, those with significant underlying medical conditions, and people over 65—commencing as supplies arrive.
Availability dates for those not considered a priority will be announced as more supplies become confirmed. The federal government has said that it hopes to start making the vaccine available to the general population after finishing with priority groups by about March 2021.
The long-term efficacy of the vaccines is not yet known, so “booster shots” could be required in future.
As well, side effects not observed during clinical trials may become apparent over a longer period, and it is not yet known how well, or even if, transmission of COVID-19 will be prevented by any vaccine. The major benefit so far is prevention of the disease or lessening of its effects.
The Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, Dr. Hedy Fry, is also sounding a note of caution.
As a septugenarian who suffers with asthma, Fry faces a much greater risk from COVID-19 than those who are much younger and don’t suffer from respiratory, cardiovascular, or autoimmune diseases.
“The important thing I wanted to say to Canadians: it’s not a silver bullet,” the veteran parliamentarian pointed out. “The vaccines will not create what we call herd immunity unless a lot of people get vaccinated.”
Then there are the logistical challenges of distributing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which must be refrigerated at 70° C below zero before being thawed for use. (Other vaccines in the pipeline won’t require such extreme-cold storage.)
UBC Sauder School of Business professor and logistics expert Mahesh Nagarajan told the Straight by phone that it will be exceedingly complicated delivering it into nursing homes, which is why health-care workers are often the first to be immunized.
Furthermore, he said that there currently aren’t enough vaccines to meet the demand.
“The public, apparently, is somewhat nervous, so we don’t know the demand,” Nagarajan added.
At the same time, he said that the public should take comfort in the military playing a major role in the rollout of vaccines. That's because the Canadian Armed Forces has a great deal of experience with logistics.
"The military, as many of us would know, is quickly capable of going to a new terrain and being able to distribute all sorts of things," Nagarajan said.
Public won't have to pay for vaccinations
A December 2 CBC story indicated that an average of results from three national polls showed that between 11 percent and 15 percent of Canadians would not get vaccinated, while a November 27 Ipsos poll determined that 13 percent of respondents would not get the vaccine under any circumstances.
The Ipsos results also revealed that 71 percent of those surveyed were nervous about taking a vaccine that was quickly created and approved. Almost the same percentage (69) were concerned about potential long-term effects. Angus Reid numbers showed that 32 percent of Canadians had reservations about a COVID-19 vaccine and would likely hold off on getting vaccinated.
“You can’t persuade people to do something they don’t want to do,” Fry acknowledged. “But you have to explain to them how vaccines and why vaccines are important.”
As an example, she cited the polio vaccine, which halted a disease that often left people disabled in the 1950s. Fry added that smallpox killed hundreds of millions of people in the developing world, including huge numbers of Indigenous people in North America, before it was halted with a vaccine.
Moreover, she said that the federal government is paying for the COVID-19 vaccine, which means that nobody has to pay out of their own pocket to be immunized.
“It’s not going to cure COVID-19,” Fry emphasized. “But what we’re hoping is with a lot of use of the vaccine by as large a number of Canadians as possible that COVID-19 will become kind of like the flu.”
In fact, clinical trials show that those who took the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine largely avoided the most serious complications from COVID-19, which include strokes, severe breathing difficulties requiring ventilation, and cardiovascular and kidney problems.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both new mRNA, or messenger RNA, vaccines. This type of vaccine has not been authorized before in North America for vaccines and is being closely watched, though it is considered as safe as any other vaccine.
Instead of using an inactivated or weak virus to trigger an immune response to produce antibodies, a mRNA vaccine “teaches” our cells to make a harmless portion of a protein found on the surface of the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 illness.
Our immune systems then react to its “foreign” presence by making antibodies to fight the intruder and “remembering” how to do so in the future.
Prof calls for two-way communication
Heidi Tworek, a historian and associate professor in the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, has studied vaccine “hesitancy”.
She told the Straight by phone that vaccination rates will rise if information is tailored toward different groups of people, meeting them where they’re at, with presentations in multiple languages and on many social-media platforms.
“For some, they really want to see as much data as possible,” Tworek said. “They’re going to spend hours diving into data. For other people, they want a simple graphic."
She also said that it's important not to be dismissive of people who are hesitant.
To illustrate her point, she noted that Indigenous people in 18th-century Guatemala felt this way about the smallpox vaccine, even though it could save their lives. They couldn't trust the colonizers after what they had already done.
Similar concerns exist today.
"As we’ve seen in B.C., [there are] very justifiable concerns from indigenous people about a health-care system that seems to be highly racist against them," she said. "Those are very justifiable concerns. Take them seriously."
According to Tworek, it can require in-depth conversations and the investment of a considerable amount of time to convince some vaccine-hesitant people that they should be immunized.
Some well-educated people are antivaxxers because they don't trust the ingredients that will be going into their bodies.
"You can’t just put out a government communications campaign and hope it’s going to work," Tworek said. "There needs to be much more of a feedback loop where you try to understand what are the reasons why people are hesitant. How can we speak to them? How can we be open and clear?"