About the only thing more changeable than the weather this spring is the daily stream of news related to Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
One minute the forecast is sunny, with doses arriving ahead of schedule and the possibility of everyone getting their first shot by summer. The next it’s clouding over, with the delivery of one vaccine delayed, and the use of two others under review over fears of blood clots that occur in minuscule numbers.
Makes a person want to draw the blinds until Victoria Day. But we can’t, because our lives and livelihoods are dependent on everyone getting access to a supply of vaccine doses that was limited from the start.
This is especially true of essential workers, whose jobs require them to leave home to work, and who are caught in the vortex of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. They need to know when and where they will get a vaccine, and above all that they can count on that information.
This week has, in typical seasonal fashion, brought a mixed bag of news.
Ottawa said that Moderna, one of the two companies supplying the vast majority of Canada’s vaccines, failed to deliver 855,600 scheduled doses last week and only got them to Canada on Tuesday.
A lack of supply caused several vaccine clinics to be scaled back or suspended in Ontario this week, leaving people in some of Toronto’s hardest-hit areas out in the cold.
These delays are extremely frustrating. They’re the result of a fragile vaccination campaign based entirely on imported doses. The slightest hiccup can throw off Canada’s rollout schedule, and has.
The other issue playing into inoculation plans, in Canada and around the world, is the discovery of extremely rare side effects in two major vaccines.
Tiny numbers of people who have received a dose of the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vaccines have developed potentially fatal blood clots.
On Wednesday, Health Canada reiterated its position that AstraZeneca is safe for all ages, which is good news.
But that announcement came in the shadow of another by U.S. health officials, who on Tuesday paused the delivery of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after six people, out 6.8 million who had been injected, developed similar blood clots.
Canadians now have to wade through a lot of contradictory developments related to this side effect.
Denmark this week elected to permanently suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. But other European countries continue to use it for people over the ages of 50 or 60, whereas Britain, which has already safely delivered tens of millions of the shots, introduced a new cut-off age of 30. Here at home, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is still recommending it not be used on people under 55.
And on Monday, a woman in Quebec became the first Canadian to get a dose of AstraZeneca and develop blood clots (she is out of danger, at last report).
As for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Health Canada has approved its use but this country still hasn’t received any doses. Given that Canada has 10 million on order, any delays in their delivery or limits on their use would be a significant blow.
And for all that, Canadians waiting patiently for a shot should be reassured that pauses or changes of plans in response to the identification of rare side effects are exactly the way the system – and science – are supposed to work.
Health Canada authorizes vaccines and other drugs based on a risk-benefit analysis, and there is no such thing as a medicine that doesn’t have side effects of some kind.
As Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, said Wednesday, there are other drugs approved for use in Canada, such as oral contraceptives, that carry a risk of blood clots. There is even one drug, Heparin, that can produce the same dangerous clots found in the vaccines.
In those cases, the benefits of the drugs far outweigh the risks. And right now in Canada, the overarching risk is catching COVID-19. The occurrence of blood clots caused by AstraZeneca is vanishingly small, and the condition is easily treatable if it arises. That makes the continued use of AstraZeneca medically sound. The evidence at hand suggests health officials in Canada and other countries will reach a similar conclusion about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.