Politics

Multiple vaccine candidates needed to safeguard against possible failures, task force co-lead says

A co-chair of Canada’s new COVID-19 vaccine task force says it will be critical to have a number of vaccine candidates on hand to halt the spread of the coronavirus should any of the country’s leading options fail.

'If one or two of them fails, we hope to have a number in our back pocket,' Dr. Joanne Langley says

The co-chair of Canada's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force says having access to several vaccine candidates will be key to protecting Canadians and tamping down on a further spread of the novel coronavirus. (Stu Mills/CBC)

A co-chair of Canada's new COVID-19 vaccine task force says it will be critical to have a number of vaccine candidates on hand to halt the spread of the coronavirus should any of the country's leading options fail.

"The vaccine task force strategy is to develop — and we have developed — a portfolio of vaccines," said Dr. Joanne Langley, head of infectious diseases at Halifax's IWK Health Centre. "The announcement that you heard this week was for two vaccines, but in fact we've been recommending a suite of vaccines across a number of platforms and negotiations about those vaccines are underway."

Langley spoke to CBC Radio's The House after the federal government announced it had signed deals with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and biotechnology firm Moderna to secure millions of doses of potential vaccines. 

"If one or two of them fails, we hope to have a number in our back pocket that we can use," she said.

Anand said Wednesday the government is negotiating with other potential suppliers, both inside and outside Canada. Exactly how many isn't clear, and government officials remain reluctant to say how many doses will be needed.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand talks about the process behind Canada’s work to secure millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, while co-chair of Canada’s Vaccine Task Force Dr. Joanne Langley discusses why multiple candidates are key to ensuring Canadians are protected. 0:00

Imminent vaccine unlikely

In a separate interview with The House, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said the number of other companies Canada is currently negotiating with "is larger than two and less than 10."

"There is risk in this process, of course, including the fact that the global environment is extremely competitive and that it is uncertain in terms of outcome," Anand said. "Having said that, we have an obligation to make sure that we as a country are well-placed to be able to disseminate and distribute vaccines to Canadians."

But Langley agrees with the consensus that a successful candidate won't emerge until 2021 — a timeframe that comes too late for students heading back schools amid an anticipated second wave. 

"Many of the companies will not be through their whole end-to-end cycle of being able to scale up and produce vaccines at a mass scale until 2021. There's a number of steps that have to happen, obviously, before the regulators in each country are going to approve a vaccine," Langley said.

"Even though we're accelerating our work and developing the vaccine more quickly than would normally be the case, we're still observing all those individual steps."

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No commitment to mandatory vaccine

While securing a vaccine is one challenge, getting people to line up for it will be another.

Survey results from the Angus Reid Institute released this week found that a third of respondents would likely adopt a wait-and-see approach when it comes to receiving the vaccine, while another 14 per cent said they would not get it at all. 

But neither Anand nor Langley propose making the vaccine mandatory, even though proof of vaccination for diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella is required for children entering schools in some provinces, including Ontario.

"'Mandatory' is a word that can provoke emotional responses in folks," Langley said. "I don't think any jurisdiction is in the position where we're forcing someone to get a vaccine."

Langley said ensuring successful candidates are effective, allowing Canadians to ask questions about the vaccine, making it easy to receive and providing assurance that the experience won't be unpleasant will be key to getting a high uptake.

"I think those [measures] are probably going to be more successful than … forcing people or even suggesting that we would ever force people to get vaccines," Langley said.

With files from the CBC's Chris Hall

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