Skip to main content

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, in Toronto on June 18, 2021.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

One of the weirder phenomena of the pandemic has been the branding of COVID-19 vaccines.

Drugstore companies, public-health officials and other vaccine providers say people have walked away from their appointments when they weren’t offered their preferred option – which usually turned out to be the messenger-RNA vaccine made by Pfizer/BioNTech.

The Pfizer dose would appear to be the most trusted in Canada, while Moderna’s mRNA vaccine and AstraZeneca’s more conventional one are ranked second and third.

Peter Loewen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, recently told The Globe and Mail that data taken from weekly surveys show that people are 30 points less likely to take an AstraZeneca dose than they are a Pfizer dose, and 10 to 15 points less likely to accept Moderna over Pfizer.

This could have serious consequences as Canada works its way toward full vaccination of the entire population. All three approved vaccines are safe and effective, and any form of hesitancy toward any one of them is a problem.

In Quebec, the Health Ministry says almost 12,000 people have walked away from their vaccination appointments when they weren’t offered the mRNA dose of their preference, even though Pfizer and Moderna are, as one doctor put it, “like two brands of bottled water – the same product but packaged by different companies.”

This is behaviour specific to COVID-19 vaccines. Last year, thousands of Canadian parents took their children to get their measles, mumps and rubella vaccines, and none of them asked, “Is that the Merck, because I don’t want the Merck, I want the GlaxoSmithKline.”

And yet, here we are in a pandemic, with cases dropping steadily thanks to the miracle of COVID-19 vaccinations, and some Canadians appear to be have developed a certain partiality about which jab they will accept – rather like the grandees in that famous old television commercial for Grey Poupon mustard.

The potential danger of vaccine shopping was highlighted this week when a shipment of Pfizer doses to Canada was briefly delayed, and health officials said people with appointments to get their second shot of Pfizer should accept Moderna if it was offered to them – a practice that Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) says is fine in such cases.

“Another mRNA COVID-19 vaccine product recommended for use in that age group can be considered interchangeable,” NACI said. And yet, there could be people who will refuse to mix their doses.

This is not rational behaviour: All the vaccines approved for use in Canada are safe and effective. But it’s very human. Branding often comes down to trust, and trust is critical when it comes to people’s health. If anything, public-health officials have failed to instill trust in all of Canada’s approved vaccines.

AstraZeneca has been star-crossed from the start. Questions about its clinical trials delayed its approval in a number of countries, Canada included. And then it was connected to a vanishingly rare but potentially fatal blood clot.

In May, the Trudeau government said Canadians should take the first vaccine offered to them, but NACI said they should avoid AstraZeneca if possible. NACI now says taking Pfizer or Moderna as a second dose after a first dose of AstraZeneca is the “preferred” option, further muddying the waters and leaving people looking for simpler answers.

Moderna, meanwhile, botched its early rollout in Canada by repeatedly missing scheduled deliveries. Pfizer is the only company to have delivered its jabs consistently and on time, while news stories about its early success in Israel helped boost its reputation.

It is also the vaccine that has gone into the most arms in Canada – 70 per cent of doses shipped here have been Pfizer. That kind of reach inevitably creates a momentum for one vaccine brand over another, especially in the era of social media and vaccine selfies.

So you can’t really blame some Canadians for having formed the opinion that #pfizer might be a better choice than the alternatives, even if that’s not accurate.

If anything, you can blame the federal government and public-health officials. They failed to explain well enough that every vaccine carries risks and benefits, and that the best vaccine is the one you can get, as soon as you can get it.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.