Vaccine shopping to avoid Moderna shot is 'alarming,' unnecessary and potentially harmful, doctors say

While helping out at pop-up vaccination clinics in Toronto, Dr. Hemant Shah has seen first hand a growing concern about the Moderna vaccine. He and other doctors across Ontario say they are having to counter a belief among the public that one vaccine is better than another.

Experts say our top priority should be getting vaccinated as soon as possible

Health-care workers with Humber River Hospital administer doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary clinic for members of Toronto’s Spanish-speaking community at the Glen Long Community Centre on May 14, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

While helping out at Toronto pop-up vaccination clinics, Dr. Hemant Shah has seen first hand a growing concern about the Moderna vaccine.

With their sleeves rolled up to receive their first shot, people find out they are about to get a dose of the Moderna vaccine and ask if they can get a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine instead. 

Shah, a physician with Toronto-based University Health Network, said many people he talks to have encountered misinformation on social media or through word of mouth and incorrectly believe that Pfizer is the better of the two vaccines.

"Seeing that people have a preference for one over the other is surprising and a little bit alarming," Shah told CBC News. 

"Moderna and Pfizer are like Mercedes and BMW. You don't turn down a Mercedes. You don't turn down a BMW."

Moderna and Pfizer are like Mercedes and BMW. You don't turn down a Mercedes. You don't turn down a BMW.- Dr. Hemant Shah

Experts say people know a lot more about the Pfizer vaccine because it's more common in Canada, having delivered consistent supply throughout this year. Meanwhile Moderna has faced supply and delivery issues, but is just as effective at preventing COVID-19 infections.

Shah is concerned that when some people find out they're scheduled to get the Moderna shot, they may cancel in the hope that they can rebook for a dose of Pfizer.

"The most important thing that needs to happen for all of us to recover from the pandemic is for people to get vaccinated at the first opportunity," he said.

"And if people are turning down opportunities to get vaccinated with highly effective and safe vaccines, that just pushes back the date at which we will emerge from this pandemic in Canada and globally." 

Vaccine shopping an 'emerging trend'

Public health officials across the province have recently been raising concerns about vaccine shopping, a trend Hamilton's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson says is happening in her city, too.

"People show up and when they find out it is Moderna that's available for them, they're choosing to go and rebook their appointment rather than receive that Moderna shot," Richardson said during a meeting with Hamilton city councillors Wednesday.  

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health, said the preference for Pfizer is "an emerging trend" that needs to be addressed.

She reminded the public at a news conference Thursday that the science behind how Moderna and Pfizer vaccines work to stop COVID-19 infections is almost identical, as is their two-dose effectiveness — 94 and 95 per cent, respectively.

Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters Wednesday that she's been asked about why there's less talk about Moderna compared to Pfizer and AstraZeneca. She says it comes down to supply, not effectiveness. 

"Studies have tended to focus on Pfizer and AstraZeneca because these vaccines are available in greater supply in the first half of this year," she said. "I would anticipate that we'll see more studies, including Moderna, in the months ahead." 

Dr. Hemant Shah, a liver specialist at Toronto's University Health Network, has been helping administer COVID-19 vaccines at pop-up clinics across the city. He says he sometimes encounters people reluctant to get a Moderna vaccine despite its proven effectiveness. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Doctors challenge vaccine preference 

Shah was helping at a vaccination clinic in Toronto's Rexdale neighbourhood Thursday, inoculating not only adults with Moderna, but kids 12 and up with Pfizer, after Health Canada approved the shot in that age group earlier this month.

Some adults asked if they could get Pfizer instead, but after Shah answered their questions and provided reassurance, they agreed to receive Moderna. 

Toronto Dr. Jeff Kwong, who also helps at pop-up clinics, said he's seen the same kind of hesitancy about Moderna but is also able to challenge that thinking.

"I think people are less familiar with the Moderna name, but the reality is both are very good vaccines," he said. "The majority of people will change their minds and say, 'OK I think it's reasonable to get the (Moderna) vaccine.' " 

For Shah, it's exciting that entire families are now getting vaccinated together.

"The kids sit down at a table and get Pfizer. The parents sit down and get Moderna and they all walk out happy."

Allocating vaccine type by age group is a strategy Shah believes will continue as more kids get vaccinated, making it all the more important for health-care providers to challenge vaccine hesitancy and preference.

Experts say people may know more about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine because it's more common in Canada, while Moderna has faced supply and delivery issues, but is just as effective at preventing COVID-19 infections. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

However, Moderna continues to face supply issues and early signs indicate the company will not be able to meet its target of sending 14.3 million doses to Canada in the first half of this year, potentially falling short by eight to 10 million doses.

Meanwhile, Pfizer has delivered more than 15 million doses to Canada since March, with 2.4 million more expected each week in June. It will therefore remain the most common vaccine in Canada. 

'Just get vaccinated'

Dr. Allison McGeer, a member of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, said people call her with all kinds of concerns about every type of vaccine available. 

She said those concerns are usually based on what people have read or because they've seen conflicting reports about vaccines online.

"There's this flood of information for everybody that's just really hard to sort through." 

But in the middle of Canada's largest vaccination campaign in history, McGeer stressed that it's imperative for people to quell their "consumer preferences and just get vaccinated."

"Thinking you can schedule for a particular vaccine, it's going to be a lot harder and you're probably going to have to wait a lot longer, and that's clearly not a good idea."

With files from Bobby Hristova, Christine Rankin