Cross Country Checkup

Experts worry that making a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory could harm public trust

As parts of Canada face a second lockdown amid rising COVID-19 cases, vaccines are being touted as a solution to the pandemic and the resulting economic hardship facing businesses. But experts say that when a shot becomes available, making it mandatory could do more harm than good.

Bioethicist Kerry Bowman says the government needs a 'strong campaign' highlighting the benefits

Two companies announced this month that their COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, and are seeking to expedite the approval process. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

As parts of the country face a second lockdown amid rising COVID-19 cases, vaccines are being touted as a solution to the pandemic and the economic hardship facing businesses. But experts say that even when a shot becomes available, making it mandatory could harm public trust.

"If our government ... should say, 'You absolutely have to do this,' we really, really risk a very negative backlash that, in fact, could kind of catch fire and it could actually increase the amount of people not getting vaccinated," said Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto.

A recent survey by the polling firm Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found that 69 per cent of Canadians would take a Health Canada-approved vaccine once it becomes available. Fourteen per cent said they would not, while 17 per cent said they did not know. The online survey was completed by a representative sample of 1,522 Canadians.

With two COVID-19 vaccine trials posting positive results for their effectiveness, the possibility of a successful candidate feels within reach, and with it a return to normal life.

But news of successful vaccine trials raises questions over whether they can or should be made mandatory for some Canadians, like health-care workers and first responders, and whether private companies will require proof of vaccination in order to use their services.

Entertainment company Ticketmaster has said it's exploring ways to verify that concertgoers are COVID-19 free. However, the company says it cannot set or enforce any entry requirements, instead leaving the decision to event organizers, according to a BBC report.

Health law professor Tim Caulfield says there is insufficient data on the effects of a COVID-19 vaccine, something that would need to be bolstered before beginning to consider whether a vaccine should be made mandatory. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

Bowman says that it's unlikely governments in Canada will mandate vaccines, and argues the concept is unethical.

"We live in a society with certain levels of freedom and nothing can be done to any of our bodies without our explicit consent medically, or other in other realms as well," he told Cross Country Checkup.

When it comes to private companies, requesting proof of vaccination is similar to an idea floated early in the pandemic: so-called immunity passports.

Those passports, he says, present their own set of ethics concerns, but it's "almost certain" that when a vaccine is approved, there will be some form of identification for those who received it.

"As a society, we haven't really made decisions about what that means in terms of how you can interact with the world," he said. "But private industry and private enterprise is kind of forcing our hand on that."

More data needed

Tim Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta and author of The Vaccination Picture, agrees that mandating a vaccine could undermine public trust in the vaccine which, according to polls, is already low.

Canadians growing less supportive of a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine, poll suggests

3 years ago
Duration 7:44
A new poll from Leger suggests Canadians are growing less supportive of making a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory when one becomes available.

Even considering such a policy would require more information, he says.

"Bottom line is, so far the data is looking good, but do we have enough data where we want to have a mandatory policy? Do we want to wait and see what the [vaccine's] safety profile is after we've given it to thousands, maybe millions of individuals before we develop those kinds of policies?" Caulfield told Checkup.

"I think that's worth considering."

Given the effect COVID-19 has had on the economy, the health law professor says it would not be surprising if businesses come to expect patrons to be vaccinated in order to access services.

Doing so, however, would mean that governments must ensure equitable access to the shot in order to make sure nobody is left out.

"That's one of the things you need to consider. Do people have access to this vaccine? Is this policy considering the immunocompromised? Is this policy going to be administered in a way that is fair?" said Caulfield.

According to Bowman, what's key is that ultimately enough Canadians choose to be vaccinated in order to develop herd immunity against COVID-19, and a targeted public service message could do the trick.

"What we need is a very strong campaign — and most people get it — why this matters as much as it does," he said.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Steve Howard and Kitrthana Sasitharan.

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