I got the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 20. A week or so later, health authorities announced that they were putting limits on its use because of safety concerns. Am I nervous? Not in the least. I feel lucky to be protected. What makes me nervous is that this news may keep others from getting vaccinated and so prolong the pandemic.
We are in a deadly race right now – vaccines against virus. Variants have made COVID-19 more transmissible and more dangerous. Hospitalizations in Ontario have reached a new peak. If nerves over the safety of vaccines slow the immunization campaign, we could be in even bigger trouble. It is vital to get shots into as many arms as possible.
That doesn’t mean throwing caution to the winds. Authorities were being prudent when they advised that, for now, AstraZeneca should not go to those under 55. New information suggested that an exceedingly rare blood-clotting disorder might be linked to the vaccine. They needed time to check it out. It was just the latest of several rounds of negative headlines for AstraZeneca.
COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.
Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.
- Country of origin: Britain
- Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
- Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.
- Country of origin: South Africa
- Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
- Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.
- Country of origin: Brazil
- Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
- Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.
DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)
- Country of origin: India
- Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
- Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.
- Country of origin: Peru
- Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
- Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.
If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?
Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.
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But let’s put those headlines in perspective: This is all about balancing risks. The risk of blood clots is tiny compared with COVID-19. Not a single case of the clotting disorder has been found in this country. Canada has recorded close to a million cases of COVID-19, and about 23,000 deaths.
That threat/benefit equation is the reason that authorities are still recommending the use of AstraZeneca for those 55 and over, who are more vulnerable to the virus. The vaccine is effective, inexpensive and can be stored in a simple refrigerator. Millions of doses have been administered in Europe and more than 300,000 in Canada.
“Even assuming the very worst about the risk that the AstraZeneca vaccine might pose, the shot will save many more lives per million doses than it could ever possibly end,” science writer Hilda Bastian wrote in The Atlantic.
Let’s remember, too, that AstraZeneca is just one of the main vaccines being deployed against the virus and that none of the others has suffered anything like the same bad press. As Ms. Bastian puts it, “There’s zero indication, at this point, that the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech or Johnson & Johnson vaccines have caused any deaths at all.” Even severe allergic reactions, which can happen with vaccinations, are glancingly rare.
And yet worries over vaccination persist. While many thousands of Canadians are rushing in for their jab, as I did, a good number are still hanging back – many because of difficulties in getting to an appointment or navigating the health system, but some because they harbour fears about safety. These are often highly educated, well-informed people.
As he announced this week that he was extending Ontario’s lockdown, Premier Doug Ford lamented that lots of those over 70 and even over 80 had yet to be inoculated. Part of the solution is better outreach from public health, especially in vulnerable neighbourhoods. Another is simply spreading the news about the vaccines and how they work.
That news is far more often good than bad. Report after report since COVID-19 vaccines started appearing late last year has shown them to be safe and reliable. Only this week, a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to be highly effective at preventing the disease. What is even more important, the vaccines all do a great job of stopping people from being hospitalized or dying from the virus – which is, after all, the main point. That science managed to invent and manufacture vaccines against a new disease at such speed is impressive. That they all have proved to work so well, and with so few ill effects, is incredible.
So let’s be straight about this. The qualms that hesitant Canadians are having about the vaccines are not justified by the facts. If they delay getting vaccinated, or refuse altogether, they are doing a disservice to the whole country.
I felt a wave of relief when I walked out the pharmacy with that Band-Aid on my shoulder. Even though it hasn’t changed my behaviour much, it makes me feel much safer and more hopeful.
Millions more Canadians will get their chance in the next few weeks as vaccine deliveries accelerate. For their own safety, and the safety of others, they should get over their fears and line up for their shots.
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