University of Alberta team will lead public consultation on who gets COVID-19 vaccine first

A University of Alberta research team will conduct a national survey to help Canada's health officials decide who should get the eventual COVID-19 vaccine first.

Researchers will issue national survey to 2,800 Canadians to help health officials make the call

Dr. Shannon MacDonald is leading a team a researchers at the University of Alberta which will survey 2,800 Canadians on early COVID-19 immunization plans. (John Ulan/Ulan Photography)

When a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, researchers at the University of Alberta want Canadians to have their say in who should get it first, ahead of the inevitable supply shortages.

Today Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization released its preliminary guidelines on what populations should get priority for COVID-10 immunization.

Key populations include seniors and people with high-risk conditions, but also healthcare workers, long-term care providers along with people who can't work virtually such as police, firefighters and grocery staff.

U of A nursing professor Shannon MacDonald and her team will issue a national survey to 2,800 Canadians asking for feedback on the strategy. It'll be rolled out in two weeks, with a hope to have rough data by Christmas.

MacDonald refers to it as more of a consultation than a public opinion survey.

"Here's the preliminary guidance. What do you think about it? And as a potential recipient of the vaccine, what are your intentions? And what are your questions?" Macdonald said.

The research is part of  a COVID-19 rapid response research project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and is intended to guide public health officials in how they dole out the first rounds of immunizations when they become available in Canada.

"As they develop the next stage of their guidance, they are keeping in mind the public perspective on the vaccine programs, and that will allow them to communicate more effectively with those prioritized groups," MacDonald said.

Feedback is critical

Supply of the vaccine will be limited and the feedback will be critical to ensuring that immunization campaigns are effective, she said.

"People might say, 'Oh, you just want to check a box to say you consulted with the public,' but the fact is that if we don't ask the public what they think about the guidelines, what we risk is we roll out a program that nobody will like, we roll out a vaccine program that will have no chance of success," MacDonald said. 

"So if we consult with the public and find out what their questions and concerns are, then we can do something about addressing them."

Hundreds of scientists around the world have joined the race to find an effective vaccine. 

More than 150 are in development worldwide with 10 candidates now in Phase 3 clinical trials.

With the prospect of a successful formula potentially hitting the market within the next year, government and public health officials are preparing for the unprecedented task of distributing it. 

The federal government recently invested $1 billion in preorders for six foreign vaccine candidates, but even that investment can not ensure universal access in those first critical weeks and months. 

Shortages in supply at the beginning are inevitable, so choices need to be made based on greatest benefit.

Priority question is complicated

Front-line health-care workers who care for COVID-19 patients are expected to get the highest priority for access to vaccines. Beyond that, the question becomes more complicated.

High-risk populations such as seniors and people with compromised immune systems are likely to be considered a priority group. However, if certain demographic groups indicate that they won't be rushing to get their shot, the strategy may need to change.

Also, the strategy may hinge on the efficacy of the vaccine or vaccines. If a certain vaccine proves less effective on seniors, for instance, it may be best to change tact and focus on immunizing a different high-risk population.

It's also possible that with some vaccines, certain people will require one dose and others, older adults for example, will require two. 

With files from Wallis Snowdon