Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
As soon as it became clear that researchers and pharmaceutical makers would successfully develop not one but several effective vaccines against COVID-19, there has been debate about which shot people should get – or if the public should even have the option to choose.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney waded into that debate this week by promising that people in his province would have the ability to pick between any of the vaccines available when it’s their time to get it. There are four vaccines currently approved for use in Canada and there are others making their way through trials or awaiting approval from Health Canada.
Mr. Kenney says that when it’s his turn to get the shot, he expects to be able to choose.
Experts have warned that allowing vaccine choice could slow down the process if people decide to wait for the particular vaccine they want. This could hurt efforts to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. Not all vaccines are providing the same number of doses to Canada, or are on the same schedule, meaning that anyone with a strong preference may need to wait if they are determined to get their vaccine of choice.
Public-health officials have urged people to take the first vaccine available to them and not worry about what they describe as modest differences between their effectiveness. And several provinces, such as B.C. and Quebec, have ruled out the option altogether.
Complicating the debate are concerns from some religious communities about the use of cell lines derived from aborted fetuses decades ago in the development of two of the vaccines – from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Cell lines refer to a lineage of cells that are reproduced, in some cases for years or decades, and then used for medical purposes.
Mr. Kenney says he wants to ensure Albertans can make decisions around vaccines that respect their moral beliefs. He also says others will want to dive into the science and make their own decisions about which vaccine to get.
“I’ve been clear with our health officials here that people must have a choice partly to reflect their conscientious concerns that they may have on those ethical issues,” Mr. Kenney said during a live Facebook video on Wednesday evening. “But also they may be really well-read in the science of the competing vaccines and they may choose one over another for reasons of tested efficacy or other factors,”
Alberta is already allowing people aged 50-64 to choose whether they want the AstraZeneca vaccine or if they would prefer to wait their turn in the wider queue, when they will be able to get vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
The concern about fetal cells is not unique to Alberta and predates COVID-19. They are used in many drugs and pharmaceutical products.
The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were both developed using cell lines that were derived from legally aborted fetuses in the 1970s. There are also myths circulating online that claim some vaccines contain fetal tissue, which is not true.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued several statements raising concerns about the use of fetal tissue in vaccine development, but the council and the Vatican have recently come out to say that Catholics can take any vaccine if there are no alternatives.
The Archbishop of Montreal went further, issuing a statement this week that said Catholics “can, in good conscience, be inoculated with any of the authorized vaccines” and that doing so would be a charitable act.
Stephan Hwang, a physician and research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, worries that encouraging people to choose between vaccines could cause some to delay their shots.
“It raises the potential that people will delay vaccination in an effort to get a preferred vaccine in a situation where every day and every week counts. This is not a situation where time is on our side.”