Fraser Macdonald: Debunking vaccine talking points

Examining a few vaccine claims that need to be critically assessed

By: Fraser Macdonald

Now that playgrounds in Ontario are free again, we can go back to our regularly scheduled programming of talking endlessly about vaccines. As with any issue taking up this much oxygen, sorting through the talking points and separating political messaging from genuine public health advice is hard work.

I have done the work for you — with the caveat off the top that the vaccines in question are remarkably safe and effective, despite extremely rare reports of dangerous reactions. These vaccines are our way out of COVID-19. To that end, there has been enormous pressure on the federal government to procure said vaccines, and on the provinces to administer them. Presented here are some of our top vaccine talking points — why we shouldn’t accept them all at face value.

Thank heavens we have a diversified vaccine portfolio

Right now, we have four approved vaccines, three of which are available to some Canadians, and one of which has generally followed through on its delivery schedule (Pfizer). If this is a diversified portfolio at work, it’s not working great. This “diverse portfolio” is actually just the same handful of vaccines everyone else in the Western world is using. Sure, having some AstraZeneca and Moderna has been great for our overall numbers, but using the “diversity” buzzword to try to defend a botched procurement doesn’t check out.

We have enough vaccines. The provinces aren’t distributing them quickly enough.

This idea has been thoroughly dispelled elsewhere, like here:

Many provinces have things to answer for in their own COVID strategies, and vaccine distribution in some provinces has been difficult and chaotic, but why do partisans making this point so often cherry pick their stats from the day after a new delivery arrives?

Sure, we’d like to see provinces get every single shot into an arm within days of arrival, and we can rightly be concerned that as deliveries ramp up, provinces won’t be able to scale accordingly, but the idea that provinces are storing hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses in refrigerators because they can’t operationalize clinics is, by and large, complete nonsense.

No matter what the federal government did, Canada would be in the same position

Appealing to planned mediocrity is one of the great Canadian pastimes, but this talking point is both pathetic and untrue. Sure, we don’t have the pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities of the United States and shouldn’t expect to be at the top of the chart in every category. But for a country with Canada’s wealth, educated workforce, and health-care system, we should aspire to be somewhere near the top and not, as it stands, in 35th place globally, chasing the likes of Dominica and Serbia.

The federal government bet and lost on a partnership between the National Research Council and China's CanSino Biologics. The latter was supposed to send a Chinese-developed COVID-19 vaccine to the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia for human trials last year. If this plan had worked, it’s possible that we might have been able to produce this vaccine here at home.

However, the NRC went this route despite deeply sour international relations with China — and it so it should not have been a great shock when China declined to ship (a less effective) vaccine out of the country only days after the partnership was announced, as reported by iPolitics. The federal government announced contracts with Pfizer and Moderna several months later. That the federal government thought it would be wise to hand such an incredible bit of leverage to China while two of our citizens remain in captivity over the Meng Wanzhou affair demonstrates incredible geopolitical naiveté.

When it comes to vaccination, we are somewhere in the middle of the pack, and the government got some things right, but as this third wave (or lack thereof in places like the U.K.) is showing us, achieving front-of-the-pack status could have saved thousands of lives.

The saving grace for Canada and why we will hopefully have a much-improved situation in a few months rests in the the incredible work of the much-hated American pharmaceutical industry (Pfizer in particular) which has ramped up its production.

Look at [Country X] – they’re worse off than us

It’s not hard to find advanced countries, some larger than Canada, that are behind us on vaccinations per capita. Germany, Japan, and Australia, for example, all rank behind us. It should be noted that vaccination rates are not always apples-to-apples comparisons. Canada is spacing out two-dose vaccine intervals to four months (rather than the recommended three weeks with Pfizer, for example) while those countries are all giving two doses back-to-back.

We’re not in last place. Other governments have questions to answer too. But Japan being inexplicably slow at vaccinating their own people does not absolve the government of Canada of its poor performance.

Canada did a great job because we have ordered the most vaccines per capita

Frankly, the fact that we’ve ordered nearly 400 million doses for a population of about 38 million seems like enormous overkill to me. But for a government to brag about having bought at least five times the doses it needs while ignoring the “when do we get them?” part is quite rich. We have more than enough “rights to acquire vaccines” but not enough vaccines in arms. Execution matters. Deliveries matter. More of those please.

And while we’re at it, the public should be able to compare what our government agreed to contractually against what was delivered, but …

The details of these contracts for billions of dollars are confidential

This may indeed be true, but only because the government agreed to let them be confidential. Many other countries signing deals with the same pharmaceutical companies have released redacted versions of their contracts, like the EU/AstraZeneca contract or the U.S./Moderna contract. Canada has provided almost no details about our vaccine procurement process (though where we have, it looks like we are massively overpaying). This is either by design (to keep their poorly-managed negotiations secret), or incompetence. Either way, this talking point is no excuse when we’re spending billions of dollars on vaccines and time is of the essence.

We ARE manufacturing our own vaccines*  (*Coming in 2022)

Yes, we will have domestic manufacturing capacity, probably by early next year. But this talking point is true with the enormous caveat that, barring total disaster and massively undershooting the government’s own targets, every Canadian who wants to will be at least partly vaccinated by September 2021. With the necessary note that we lost domestic capacity thanks to Brian Mulroney, we should have had our own manufacturing capability before, and it’s great that we’ll have some again one day, but they don’t count goals after the final buzzer for a reason.

Once you’re fully vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask

Given that vaccines are not 100 per cent effective, perhaps we should accept that until we hit herd immunity, masks in indoor settings should still be worn even when a gathering consists entirely of fully vaccinated people. But to suggest that we need to keep wearing masks “in solidarity” with the un-vaccinated is quite the take.

Being vaccinated is supposed to have advantages. When we still face serious vaccine hesitancy, those advantages should be broadcast as loudly and widely as possible.

And when we’re in the grip of a brutal third wave and hope is in short supply, giving people some light at the end of the tunnel wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

Fraser Macdonald is a lawyer and public affairs consultant based in Toronto, and a Fellow at the Canadian Freedom Institute @CanFreedomInst


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