Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia have asked the federal government for tens of thousands of doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine for people who are uncomfortable with mRNA technology, even though hundreds of millions of doses have been safely administered.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective against COVID-19 than the shots made by Pfizer and Moderna with mRNA technology. Canada’s independent immunization advisory group recommends mRNA vaccines because they are not linked to rare cases of serious blood clots, which viral vector vaccines such as the one from Johnson & Johnson have been.
The federal government does not have any Johnson & Johnson doses, and shelved its first batch earlier this year after quality control issues emerged at the company’s manufacturing facility in Baltimore, Md. The vaccine is among four approved for use in Canada, and all are considered safe and effective, although it has not yet been used.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the federal government assured the three westernmost provinces that shipments could arrive as early as next week. He said the three provinces could together receive about 50,000 doses.
Mr. Kenney said some people, particularly in rural areas with low vaccination rates, appear to favour the Johnson & Johnson shot because of fears the mRNA technology is newer and experimental – a belief he said was driven in part by misinformation online.
“We’ve only heard this request anecdotally, but from many rural MLAs and municipal leaders, as well as from some of the folks working in rural health care, this has become enough of a drum beat of requests that we think the demand is real,” Mr. Kenney said on Thursday.
“The data and science is clear that the vaccines we currently offer are safe and effective, but if some people have curated their own information about this and come to their own conclusions, we’ll respect that.”
The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca shots are both viral-vector vaccines, in which genetic material from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is packaged inside a different, harmless virus to trigger an immune response. This method has been used in Ebola vaccines. The AstraZeneca shot has largely been phased out in Canada in favour of the mRNA.
The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are the first to use messenger RNA. They contain the genetic code for producing the spike proteins of the coronavirus, which the immune system will recognize if it encounters the real virus.
Saskatchewan’s Health Ministry issued a statement on Thursday confirming the province is pursuing the Johnson & Johnson to use in locations where it would increase COVID-19 vaccination uptake.
A spokesperson for B.C.’s Health Ministry could not be reached for comment.
James Fitz-Morris, spokesman for the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, said in an e-mail that the federal government is working on the request, but did not provide further details.
Alberta and Saskatchewan have the lowest vaccination rates in the country, and the coverage is worst in rural areas.
About 71 per cent of Alberta’s total population has had at least one dose, although in some areas, that figure is as low as 21 per cent. About 70 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population has had at least one dose.
Myles Leslie, a researcher at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy who worked on a vaccine hesitancy guide for doctors, said there’s no evidence that mRNA vaccines are more dangerous than viral-vector vaccines, and there is clear evidence they are more effective.
But he said that doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to reaching vaccine-hesitant people.
“It’s hugely pragmatic and it’s exactly the right direction to go,” said Prof. Leslie, referring to the request for Johnson & Johnson.
“Is it going have a big, needle-moving crazy effect? No, but nothing is anymore.”
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