Vaccinated Canadians overseas frustrated that they were left out of new entry rules
Some who received Russian, Chinese and other vaccines may not benefit from future easing of 14-day quarantine
When the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine was offered to Katie Gibson in Abu Dhabi, there was no doubt in her mind she should take it.
The 36-year-old teacher originally from Calgary said she and her husband didn't hesitate to take the only COVID-19 vaccine they could get in the United Arab Emirates at the time.
"It's available to us [so] let's just get it," she recalled thinking. "A vaccine is a vaccine."
After two years abroad, Gibson said her family of four desperately wants to get home this summer. And falling case counts in Canada had been giving them hope that stringent COVID-19-related border restrictions would be eased enough to make the trip possible.
So when the federal government announced last week that vaccinated Canadians could soon be allowed to skip the hotel stay and — after receiving a negative COVID-19 test — the rest of the 14-day entry quarantine that has been required since February for people entering the country, Gibson was dismayed to learn that may not apply to her.
While the eased restriction is expected to make it easier for Canadians who have Ottawa-approved COVID-19 vaccines to enter the country, it may not include Gibson and others living abroad who have been immunized with vaccines that are not on Canada's list.
Not on the list
Last week, the federal government stipulated the eased requirements would apply only to Canadians with a vaccine approved by Health Canada, such as Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca-Oxford and Janssen.
Despite being approved for use by the World Health Organization (WHO), Sinopharm is not on the list.
"I think it's ridiculous because you have so many people overseas who were given a different vaccine," said Gibson. "The WHO recognized it so I don't see why Canada won't recognize it."
Also not included is Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, which is being distributed across Russia, Mexico, India and several South American countries, including Brazil and Argentina. It's also approved for use in Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia.
'You thought you were doing something positive'
Lynne Tognet-Loge, a Canadian nurse who has lived in Moscow for 10 years, took the Russian vaccine in February — soon after it was first offered to foreigners. As a health-care professional, Tognet-Loge said she decided it was important to take the only vaccine available to protect herself and others.
"It's just disappointing first and foremost that you thought you were doing something positive in returning to this new normal, and now, you're now being told it's just inconsequential," she said.
Sputnik is awaiting approval by the WHO.
Tognet-Loge said she had been hoping to return home to Winnipeg this summer but has now decided not to because she can't spare a month of holidays that would be needed to accommodate the extra two weeks in isolation.
"I was disappointed that they don't think other vaccines can be as effective as their own Health Canada [approved] vaccines," Tognet-Loge said.
Both she and Gibson believe the government should tailor its new policy to accommodate non-Health Canada approved vaccines, perhaps by halving the long quarantine time followed by a negative COVID-19 test.
Since February, Ottawa has required all air travellers returning from non-essential trips abroad to isolate in federally mandated facilities for up to 72 hours while they await the results of polymerase chain reaction tests — commonly known as PCR tests — for COVID-19. People arriving at land borders are required to take COVID-19 tests when they enter the country and again during their 14-day isolation period.
No explanation from Health Canada
CBC News asked Health Canada to explain why people with other vaccines wouldn't be eligible for eased restrictions. But in an emailed response, Health Canada did not elaborate on the reasons for excluding other vaccines and instead reiterated that more information on the changes — expected to take effect in early July — will be available in the coming weeks.
Last month, a panel of experts set up to advise the Health Minister recommended Ottawa scrap the required hotel stay and allow travellers who have had at least a single dose to leave self-isolation as soon as they test negative. The report went on to say unvaccinated travellers should only have to quarantine for seven days before taking a test.
The next week, the government said changes to the 14-day requirement would be announced soon.
WATCH | Health Minister Patty Hadju announces plan to ease restrictions for vaccinated Canadians:
'We did what we thought was right'
Janelle Thomas, a 43-year-old singer originally from Victoriaville, Que., who now works in Dubai, said Ottawa's approach is alienating Canadians overseas.
"Hey man, we tried," said Thomas, who took the Sinopharm vaccine, like other residents of the UAE which is home to upward of 40,000 Canadians. "We did what we thought was right.
"We followed all of the rules, we got vaccinated, we took what we could get."
Thomas said it's wrong to penalize Canadians who live overseas by making it harder for them to return home for a visit when they have jobs elsewhere.
"From a global standpoint, if the WHO certifies a vaccine, you have to respect that," said Dr. Zain Chagla, associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton and an infectious disease physician.
"You can't just say, 'You have to get the vaccine we want,' when it's not available and when that country has no contract to get it and then expect people to have it when they travel in," Chagla said. "It creates an unfair compromise."
Good reason to be cautious: expert
Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious diseases at Queens University in Kingston, Ont., said there is good reason for Canada to be cautious with Sputnik and Sinopharm because peer-reviewed data on their efficacies is still limited, although the Lancet medical journal did call Russia's vaccine "safe and effective" in its review of Phase 3 trials in February.
"I think [with] many of these countries where these vaccines have been approved, the challenge is the transparency of this data collection," Evans said. "It's getting the data out so someone can take a look at it."
Regardless, Evans said Canada's current quarantine rules and approach to returning citizens needs updating.
"The government wants a one size fits all approach without having any variation in it," he said.
The U.K. and some other European countries are using a targeted "traffic light" system to distinguish between high- and low-risk countries.
Some countries such as Croatia will accept proof of past infection in lieu of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Thomas, the Dubai-based singer, said with Ottawa's roll out of the border changes progressing so slowly, many overseas Canadians likely will have little choice but to scrap their summer homecomings and wait for another opportunity later.
"It feels like we're stuck," she said.