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opinion

Mark Lautens is a J.B. Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto and AstraZeneca Professor of Organic Chemistry. He has received funding and research support from AstraZeneca.

There was a time, not so long ago, when a patient would walk into a physician’s office, wait, have a consultation where they described their symptoms and possibly walk away with a prescription (”script”) they could not read – and likely would not understand if they could. The script was handed to a pharmacist, an expert in hieroglyphics, who decoded the message and handed the patient a bottle or package of medicine.

At a different stage of life, a newborn was taken to the doctor. A vial was extracted from the fridge, a dose withdrawn and the needle inserted into a tiny arm or leg while trying to distract said infant, who soon might be wailing at the top of their lungs.

Lifesaving protection without a lot of fanfare. The miracles of modern medicine have come to seem quite ordinary.

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The dawn of the internet meant patients came ready when they met the doctor, perhaps with a diagnosis and suggested course of treatment of their own. Was it snake oil, or fool’s gold they were seeking? The doc now had the unenviable task of countering misinformation while aiming to inform and treat the condition.

The quality of the data on the internet eventually improved to the point where a medical practitioner might well explore a website for the latest specialized knowledge. But not all information is created equal. Knowing the difference between reputable data and bunk is what the degree and years of training are all about.

As a chemistry professor, and later as a parent, I can say more than one argument was ended (or started) after an appropriate Google search on a (reputable) scientific website.

Like most Canadians, I have had vaccination for tetanus, measles, mumps, seasonal flu and shingles to prevent a host of diseases or infections I would rather not experience. Even as a very curious scientist, I do not recall ever asking who made the vaccine, where it was manufactured or much else. I meekly rolled up my sleeve and tried to think of something pleasant while putting on a brave face.

Take a trip to the United States and turn on a television and you will be inundated with ads from pharmaceutical companies. The drug name, the company and the obligatory long list of potential side-effects are all squeezed into a 30-second commercial. I often find myself doing an online search to be reminded of the molecular structure of whatever drug is being advertised and looking up how it was made – a kind of “busman’s holiday.”

In Canada, in keeping with our puritanical history, we have not been allowed to know the drugmaker and the disease being treated in advertisements for pharmaceuticals – just one or the other. Either we see a satisfied gentleman kicking his heels as he leaves the house for work, or we hear the name of the manufacturer – but heaven forbid we were presented with both.

I often thought this absurd, but I was wrong – oh so wrong.

Exhibit A: The COVID vaccination rollout of 2020-2021. As a chemist doing research in how to devise better ways to make pharmaceuticals, I was very familiar with the now-ubiquitous names Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and many other companies that do drug discovery. Professionally, making the connection between drug and company was my business. I am also aware there are competitor drugs and a healthy generic-drug industry. Some drugs are “first in class”; others were “me-too”; still others “follow-on” improved therapeutics.

The return to vaccine shopping, linked to the arrival of millions of doses of Moderna and ever-changing advice from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) on AstraZeneca, sheds light on what happens when confused citizens start treating vaccines like shopping for your favourite luxury brand at Holt Renfrew. “No Moderna for me, thanks – I am a Pfizer loyalist.” “Anything but AstraZeneca!”

My personal goal is to stay alive. Full stop. To stay away from the ICU and any doctor – unless it is on a ski hill, snowshoe trail or perhaps on the Bruce Trail. Our aim should be to enjoy another birthday, another family holiday or another sacred moment.

I would encourage shopping to help support businesses, not for vaccines. Please. For your sake. For the sake of others.

Go with the pros. Avoid the internet, except to book your appointment. Ask a doc; go to the pharmacy – they will give you the best advice. Take what is available.

Then you can rest easy knowing you will soon enjoy your favourite activity – and that the worst will be behind us.

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