Juliet Guichon is an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. Eduardo Franco is a professor and the chairman of McGill University’s department of oncology and director of the division of cancer epidemiology.
Last year’s most remarkable feat is what scientists accomplished in 11 months. On Jan. 11, 2020, the genetic sequence of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was published. The first vaccine dose was delivered in Canada to 89-year-old Gisèle Lévesque of Quebec City on Dec. 14.
Now that we are in this new and hopeful phase of the pandemic, vaccine uptake is a key public-health focus. To return to our pre-pandemic lives, public willingness to be vaccinated must continue to rise. But this phase is when fear of adverse events resulting from vaccination may rise significantly.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson signalled the arrival of that moment in North America when he reported that a woman in Alaska had developed a severe anaphylactic reaction to the vaccine and described her as “the lady who couldn’t breathe.” Her reaction is one of 29 anaphylaxis cases reported in the United States last month. That period also saw a nurse at a Tennessee hospital faint during a live television broadcast; luckily, a physician caught her before she hit the ground.
A vaccine adverse event is any significant health problem that occurs after vaccination. The occurrence of an adverse event does not mean the vaccine is faulty. When a vaccine is tested for safety and efficacy in clinical trails, it is typically administered to healthy people who do not have allergic reactions to vaccination and do not have a history of fainting during or after inoculation.
When a vaccine is approved and rolled out for administration to the general public, it is expected that people susceptible to allergic reactions will have them and that some people will faint.
It is theoretically possible that some unanticipated adverse events will occur. These might arise now rather than during clinical trials because the events are rare and the trials have relatively few people. So the vaccines might give rise to such events. Researchers are watching carefully to determine whether such events are occurring. So far, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the rate of anaphylaxis appears to be just 5.5 cases per million vaccine doses administered.
More likely than harm from the vaccine is that people will experience serious health events such as heart attacks and strokes after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and that people will wrongly attribute such horrible health events to the vaccine. We are already seeing such reports: Earlier this month, the wife of a Miami doctor who died from a blood disorder said she believed his death was caused by the vaccine.
It is important to stress that a health problem that arises after vaccination is not necessarily caused by vaccination. Millions of people will be vaccinated in the next nine months. After vaccination, some will have a heart attack or stroke, some will win the lottery, others will fall in love. And none of these events will be attributable to the vaccine.
This may seem like an obvious point. But it is not evident to everyone. Past Canadian vaccine experience has shown that people can confuse adverse events caused by vaccination with events that would have occurred regardless.
Indeed, a major Canadian newspaper retracted a front-page story published in 2015 that sensationally claimed the human papillomavirus vaccine had led to significant adverse events, including a death by drowning. It appeared the journalists had made the all-too-human error of assuming that because one event followed another, the second was caused by the first.
For people to interact freely again without worrying about contracting a potentially deadly virus, it is important that as many Canadians as possible receive the vaccine. So far, we have reason to be confident that the approved vaccines are effective and that the very small risks they pose are greatly outweighed by their benefits.
As millions of people get vaccinated, it is important to keep in mind that if B follows A, it does not necessarily mean B was caused by A.
Be wary if you hear that serious events have followed vaccine administration. Coincidence is not causation.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.