Experts criticize Sask. premier's statement that vaccines don't reduce COVID-19 transmission

Some health experts in the province are frustrated after Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe published a letter on social media yesterday that included the statement that "vaccination is not reducing transmission."

'We should be listening to epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, virologists,' Sask. doctor says

Saskatoon ICU specialist Dr. Hassan Masri says physicians are not supporting restrictions for the sake of restrictions, but the province should base decisions to reduce public health measures on science. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Some health experts in the province are frustrated after Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe published a letter on social media yesterday that included the statement that "vaccination is not reducing transmission."

The letter was in support of semi-trailer convoys and rallies held across the country to protest a federal policy that requires truck drivers entering Canada from the United States to be fully vaccinated.

On the second page of the document, the premier announced the end of Saskatchewan's proof of negative test and proof of vaccination policy "in the not-too-distant future."

"Vaccination does not keep you from contracting COVID-19, but it does prevent most people from becoming seriously ill," said Moe.

"Because vaccination is not reducing transmission, the current federal policy for truckers makes no sense. An unvaccinated trucker does not pose any greater risk of transmission than a vaccinated trucker."

Physicians call Moe's statements "false"

On social media, Regina infectious diseases specialist Dr. Alex Wong called Moe's two statements about vaccines not preventing people from contracting COVID-19 and immunization not reducing transmission "false."

"Many studies show 3 doses of mRNA vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna) provides 60-70% protection (vaccine effectiveness, VE) vs Omicron infection," he said Saturday on Twitter.

"If you don't get infected, then you don't transmit the virus."

Wong wrote even with Omicron being more contagious than previous variants, three doses of vaccine can make a big difference, preventing people from getting really sick and reducing the chance of being infected.

Dr. Hassan Masri agrees with Wong.

There might be many things that are still unclear when it comes to COVID-19 because the virus and research associated with it are moving really fast, said the associate professor from the University of Saskatchewan in an interview with CBC.

However, from a scientific point of view, Moe's message about vaccines not reducing transmission is incorrect and a damaging statement, said the Saskatoon physician on Saturday.

"There is no two sides to this story," said Masri.

"Vaccines do decrease the transmission of the virus, do decrease the ability to actually acquire the virus in the first place."

Residents in the province might know others who are vaccinated and still acquired Omicron, but what people don't see is how much worse the transmission could be if no one was immunized against the disease, according to the ICU physician.

Vaccinated residents who are less likely to get the virus are also less likely to spread it, said Masri.

"No one would ever, in their right mind, say that … drunk driving laws don't work because we still know someone in my town, in my city that drove drunk and killed someone," said Masri.

"The fact that it does not prevent 100 per cent transmission is not a measure to say that this vaccine does not work." 

Not time to relax restrictions: virologist

In his letter, Saskatchewan's premier also hinted on the upcoming end of the province's proof of vaccination policy.

Already prior to Moe's statement on social media, a virologist from the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) had shared her concern about the government's current moves to relaxing restrictions, such as the changes to isolation and close contact policies.

"When you have a situation like this where there's a lot of a particular variant spreading, in this case Omicron, which is highly transmissible, you really want to be doing more to decrease transmission, not relax restrictions," said Angela Rasmussen on CBC's Morning Edition

While Omicron appears not to be as severe as other variants, it still has the potential to overwhelm the health-care system, according to the virologist.

Responding to Moe's message, Rasmussen said on Twitter that vaccines reduce the risk of both infection and transmission.

Reduce transmission by reducing infection

Dr. Paul Olszynski echoes his colleagues in the province.

He said Moe's statement about vaccines not keeping people from contracting the virus is incorrect.

"The evidence still shows actually that a patient who has two doses plus booster has a 50 per cent reduction in infection," said the emergency physician and associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine.

"50 per cent isn't 100 per cent. But it's certainly a long cry from zero per cent."

Like Wong, Olszynski said by reducing infections, transmissions are also decreased.

When asked why his percentages differ from the ones Wong shared online, Olszynski said he is referring to data provided by Eric Topol, a noted American cardiologist and researcher. 

Topol looked at pooled data from multiple studies, said the Saskatchewan emergency physician.

Therefore it 's not surprising that there's a range of percentages when it comes to data of vaccine effectiveness against infections, depending on the population and societies being studied, according to Olszynski.

Wong has listed several individual studies on Twitter, one of them for example is recent preprint data from Ontario, meaning the article has not yet been certified by peer review.

Olszynski acknowledged that everyone in Saskatchewan is getting tired of all the public health measures.

However, seeing the decrease of some policies which have helped to prevent more catastrophic surges is disheartening, said the physician.

"It's not evidence-based," he said.

"I don't go around telling farmers how they should run their crops…. I respect the farmers, their expertise, their knowledge. I think they should be leading those types of decisions along with researchers who do agricultural science.

"In the case of health care and pandemics, we should be listening to epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, virologists."