Alberta COVID-19 vaccine plan promising, but more data disclosure would build trust: experts

Experts are offering insight into the effectiveness and timeline for Alberta's COVID-19 distribution plan, unveiled Wednesday by Premier Jason Kenney.

'We need to be very transparent, very clear with the science and clear with the data'

Some researchers say, however, that the limited number of COVID-19 vaccines available in the first stage of the rollout mean policy makers should be focussing on those who are most at risk. (Reuters)

When a COVID-19 vaccine is approved by Health Canada and becomes available, Dr. Lorne Tyrrell plans to be first in line when it's his turn to get it.

But the virologist says data about the vaccine must be transparent to the public, so that enough people can also feel they can safely trust it.

Tyrrell, founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology at the University of Alberta, is a core member of Canada's COVID-19 task force.

"We need to be very transparent, very clear with the science and clear with the data so people can have trust in science in this area, and that these vaccines, when they go into people, will be very safe and very effective," he said in an interview Thursday with CBC's Edmonton AM.

Premier Jason Kenney unveiled part of Alberta's vaccine distribution plan Wednesday. Paul Wynnyk, deputy minister of municipal affairs, is leading the provincial task force.

Phase 1 of Alberta's vaccine rollout is projected to happen in the first three months of 2021. Phase 1 will focus on the province's most at-risk populations including long-term care home residents, staff in these facilities, on-reserve First Nations people and other health-care workers.

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Phase 1 will focus on the province's most at-risk populations including long-term care home residents and staff, on-reserve First Nations people over age 65, seniors age 75 and older, and health-care workers most needed to ensure workforce capacity and who are most likely to transmit the disease to those at greatest risk.

Phase 2 will run from April to June, the province projects, with the goal of getting 30 per cent of the population immunized by the end of that period. The province said on Thursday the specific groups immunized during this phase will be determined after Phase 1 has begun.

"Clinics will be set up by AHS across the province where people who are in one of the identified priority groups can go to get their immunization," Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said in emailed statement.

"Long-term care and designated supportive living residents will be immunized in their facilities and will not need to travel. More information will be shared once vaccines are ready to be distributed."

Phase 3 will involve rolling out vaccinations to the general Alberta population. It's expected to start by fall 2021.

Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and author of The Germ Files, said the province's Phase 1 timeline is realistic.

Once the vaccine is approved by Health Canada, Tetro expects a rapid rollout where the most vulnerable people will be immunized within a couple of months.

Vaccine development often takes years to complete. So the availability next year of COVID-19 vaccine is quicker than some expected, which Tetro attributes to improving technology.

He and Tyrrell both said they trust any vaccine approved by Health Canada will have undergone enough scrutiny to be effective and safe

But Tetro said he'd still like to see more public information about the vaccine.

"At the moment, we are running off of very limited data in the public," he said. "We hear about the regulators going line by line or case by case to better understand how these vaccines work. I, personally, would like to see those."

Tetro said the distribution timeline is dependent on pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna not experiencing any setbacks.

On Thursday, Pfizer lowered the number of doses it expects to produce this year, days after it was approved for use in the United Kingdom.

Kenney said Wednesday any COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandatory. Because of the pushback against mandatory measures like masking, Tetro said governments would be best served to not worry about that, and focus effort instead on getting the vaccine to the people who want it.

"As soon as you bring up mandatory, you're going to immediately annoy probably 20 to 30 per cent of the population who believe it's their right to do what they want," Tetro said.

"We can start talking about mandatory vaccinations and other things like that when we're at a point that we're not worried about our ICUs being double-bunked, and the elderly all of a sudden dying simply because of inadvertent infections because somebody went to a house party. It's prioritizing."

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta, agreed the vaccine and the provincial government's plans for distribution look promising. 

On the point of mandatory vaccination, he emphasized it doesn't need to be discussed because nobody is calling for the measure.

"This isn't on the table, nobody has suggested it, nobody supports it," Schwartz said.

"The most important thing to emphasize is this is a safe and remarkably effective vaccine, and it's potentially getting us back to a point where life can return to normal."


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