Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks in Edmonton on Wednesday April 10, 2024. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is standing by her pick, a physician who has accused the province of overstating the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in hospitals, to lead a pandemic data review. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith defended on Tuesday a COVID-19 task force she created to look into deaths she said were unexplained and rumours on social media about vaccine harms, led by a physician she hand-picked because of his contrarian perspective on the pandemic.

Earlier in the day, The Globe and Mail published details of the little-known task force that was given a sweeping mandate by the government to assess data used to inform pandemic decision-making. Ms. Smith, speaking publicly for the first time about the group, said she created it to ascertain a “full range” of scientific views to provide recommendations on how to better manage future pandemics.

“There are a couple of concerns that I have about the number of unexplained deaths. I wanted to know what was behind that,” she said. “There’s also all kinds of rumours on Twitter, and accounts people were making on Twitter, I needed to see whether or not there was any concern about myocarditis, pericarditis, blood clots. We’ve all read that there are concerns about that.”

Numerous scientific studies have concluded that adverse events associated with COVID-19 vaccines are rare. Federal data show 58,712 reports of adverse events after immunization out of more than 105 million administered doses, which amounts to about 0.05 per cent. Roughly 11,700 were deemed serious.

Alberta already tracks “ill-defined and unknown causes of mortality.” Its most recent data show 1,714 deaths classified as such in 2022, however the information is subject to change as investigations are finished and as Statistics Canada completes its data entry.

Gary Davidson, former chief of emergency medicine at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, was installed as chair of the task force about a year ago. Dr. Davidson, during the height of the pandemic, claimed the government manipulated statistics to usher in restrictions and exaggerated the strain on hospitals. Alberta Health Services (AHS) said those assertions were false.

He is joined by health professionals who have expressed opinions counter to mainstream medical consensus around vaccines, public-health restrictions and other facets of the pandemic.

Ms. Smith said she chose Dr. Davidson to chair the task force because he had voiced concerns about the way in which Alberta analyzed some of its COVID-19 data. The government has earmarked $2-million for the review.

“I needed somebody who was going to look at everything that happened with some fresh eyes and maybe with a little bit of a contrarian perspective, because we’ve only ever been given one perspective for the last number of years,” she said. “I wanted him to be able to consult widely, bring in people who had been shouted down in the public sphere, as well as those who supported the approach that was taken.”

The Alberta New Democratic Party condemned the task force as an extension of Ms. Smith’s COVID-19 grievances, which helped her secure the United Conservative Party leadership in October, 2022. One of her first public comments after being sworn in as Premier was that people who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are the “most discriminated” group of her lifetime, a statement she walked back one day later.

Ms. Smith has been a fierce critic of public-health restrictions implemented under her predecessor Jason Kenney and has repeatedly voiced skepticism of COVID-19 vaccines. On Tuesday, she said Alberta should have listened more to doctors like Ari Joffe, who criticized the lockdown approach and rejected restrictions that skewed toward the frail and elderly, saying the long-term consequences of isolation on mental health are far worse.

Only three people, according to the government, are on the task force despite it being designed to include 10 health professionals from diverse specialties. Dr. Davidson is joined by anesthetist Blaine Achen, who legally challenged AHS over its mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy, and epidemiologist David Vickers, who has written several articles questioning the impact of public-health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Four people have stepped away from the task force, including physicians Ernst Greyvenstein and Chris Sarin, who hold more conventional views regarding the pandemic.

Pediatric neurologist Eric Payne, who filed a separate legal challenge against AHS over its vaccine policy, and immunologist Jessica Rose, who has been accused of misrepresenting data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System in the United States to claim vaccines are unsafe, have also departed.

A final report from the task force is expected next month. Ms. Smith said it will be made public.

The task force is run through the Health Quality Council of Alberta (HQCA), a provincial agency that conducts health care research. Ms. Smith said this was to ensure “some guidance oversight,” however council spokesperson Lisa Brake said in a statement to The Globe it has no involvement in the work or approach of the group.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley told media on Tuesday that the task force and forthcoming report undermine the quality of health care in Alberta and its reputation. She said Dr. Davidson, who unsuccessfully ran for the UCP nomination in 2019, holds views that are dangerous to public health.

“We don’t need all perspectives, quite frankly,” Ms. Notley said. “I believe the Earth is round. And I don’t think that the people of Alberta should be paying for people who believe it’s flat to be engaging in the conversation.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe