OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stressed vaccinations are the only way for Canada to return to normal Tuesday, but did not directly contradict the advice of an expert panel that said Canadians should wait for an mRNA vaccine if they can.
On Monday, the National Advisory Council on Immunization (NACI) said that while the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were effective they should only be used in people over 30 due to a rare blood clot risk.
NACI also advised Canadians who can wait to hold out for an mRNA vaccine, like Pfizer or Moderna, because they were more effective and did not come with the same blood clot risk.
But critics accused NACI of sowing anxiety and confusion with recommendations that conflicted with Health Canada, who advises that AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson can be given to anyone over 18.
Asked about the contradiction on Tuesday, Trudeau stressed that people should get vaccinated as soon as possible, because vaccines were the best way to end the pandemic.
“The longer we wait, the longer it takes, the slower before we get back to normal, the slower before we get to drive down case numbers across the country,” he said. “Every single vaccine available in Canada has been approved by Health Canada as being both safe and effective.”
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Trudeau didn’t directly challenge NACI’s advice, but said Canadians should be considering how quickly they want the pandemic to end when they decide whether to wait for a different vaccine.
“It is a good thing that we get to hear from a broad range of medical experts and doctors, making recommendations to keep us safe. Bottom line is we need all of us to get vaccinated, as quickly as possible, so we can get back to normal,” he said.
NACI’s advice for Canadians to wait for an mRNA vaccines was based on a rare risk of blood clots, which have happened seven times in Canada after about two million AstraZeneca shots have been administered. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine has been administered to eight million Americans with just 17 cases of the rare clots reported.
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said NACI was using the best data they had with a new virus and new vaccines constantly bringing forward new information.
“It’s hard for people to understand, evolving science and evolving data. That’s been so difficult for so many people throughout the pandemic,” she said.
Canada is experiencing a high caseload in many parts of the country with extreme pressures being placed on hospitals and ICU beds. Tam said under those circumstances waiting on a perfect vaccine was putting yourself at risk.
“The longer you wait to get vaccinated, the longer that you’re not protected,” she said.
Dr. David Naylor, a former president of the University of Toronto who wrote the SARS report reviewing Canada’s effort during that crisis, said NACI was sending a terrible message about vaccines that are effective.
“I really worry that Canada will be the only country in the world to manage to create buyer’s remorse about a vaccine we provided free of charge to Canadians,” Naylor told CBC News on Tuesday.
He said comparing the efficacy of the mRNA vaccines against AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson was an imperfect comparison, because the mRNA vaccines were tested at different times, in different places, and didn’t face as many variants of the virus.
He said NACI was sending a message that those who had already rolled up their sleeves for AstraZeneca made a mistake.
“It’s an unsettling message because it suggests you got the second best vaccine,” he said. “Let’s not get into Gucci versus Rolex versus no-name branding vaccines based on questionable effectiveness comparisons.”
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said the government had to do better to provide clear advice to Canadians on vaccines.
“What Canadians need is clear, concise, and constant communications when it comes to vaccine use. Conservatives have been calling for this for weeks. The buck stops with the Health minister. She must immediately fix this problem of her creation. Lives are at stake,” she said in a statement.
NACI’s advice doesn’t change Health Canada’s authorization for the vaccines, which still allows it to be used in anyone over the age of 18. NACI’s recommendations can also be ignored by provincial governments when they roll out the vaccines.
In the short-term, the problem of which vaccine to take is a theoretical issue, because the vast majority of vaccines in Canada are Pfizer and Moderna.
In addition to two million Pfizer doses, which are arriving this week and in every week this month, Procurement Minister Anita Anand announced that one million Moderna doses set to arrive next week would arrive Wednesday instead. Moderna’s shipments have been inconsistent since early March, arriving late or with fewer vaccines that expected, but Anand said the company was working with the government to set up a more reliable schedule.
The government has 300,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine in the country, but they are being held due to quality control concerns. Anand said she expected more deliveries of the vaccine in June.
There have been 2.3 million doses of AstraZeneca shipped to the country so far and Anand said she was confident there would be many more soon, even though specific details were not available.
“Prior to the end of June, we expect to have almost double that amount. We will continue to press the supplier, as well as all other sources, for an expedited delivery of AstraZeneca into this country.”
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