The Current

Expert who quit Canada's Vaccine Task Force says more transparency needed to ensure public trust

Gary Kobinger recently left the federal government's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force over concerns about secrecy surrounding members' potential conflicts of interest.

Gary Kobinger left Task Force over concerns about potential conflicts of interest

A lack of transparency around the advice and decisions that go into securing COVID-19 vaccines could undermine public trust, said Gary Kobinger, director of the Infectious Disease Research Centre at the Université Laval. (CBC)

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An infectious disease specialist who recently resigned from the federal government's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force says more transparency is needed to ensure public trust — particularly with the speed of research in the global hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine.

"You need people to trust the vaccine," said Gary Kobinger, director of the Infectious Disease Research Centre at the Université Laval, who was also part of the team that created a successful vaccine for Ebola.

"You need to give them the information: How did you get to this vaccine? What are the data on safety? What are the data on efficacy?" he said.

Kobinger quit the Task Force over his concerns that members did not have to reveal potential conflicts of interest to the public. The federal government sought out leading experts for the Task Force, acknowledging that may lead to "real or perceived conflict of interest," but not initially requiring those conflicts to be made public.

Kobinger told The Current's Matt Galloway that this lack of transparency could concern Canadians, who he thinks should have access to the decision-making process behind the immunizations they are eventually offered.

"If you do anything that may undermine the confidence in vaccines, you may pay a high price in public health, not only for COVID, but later on for other vaccines," he said.

WATCH | Dr. Gary Kobinger explains his decision on CBC's Power & Politics.

A member of the federal government's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force resigned this week over concerns about the group’s transparency. 7:47

The COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force was set up in spring, but its members were not revealed by the federal government until last month. The group is tasked with advising Canadian leaders on the more than 150 vaccine candidates under development globally.

News of Kobinger's resignation emerged last week, but he told Galloway he has not participated in meetings for several weeks. 

In the days following his official departure, a spokesperson for the National Research Council provided Global News with a list of the members' potential conflict of interest, as disclosed at meetings up to Sept. 22. The Council also confirmed the list would be updated going forward. 

Speaking to The Current on Sept. 9, Task Force co-chair Dr. Joanne Langley said Task Force members have all disclosed their relationships with commercial interests, and update that disclosure at every meeting.

Kobinger was part of the team that created a successful vaccine for Ebola. He recently stepped down from federal government's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. (CBC News)

In a statement, the National Research Council told The Current that it had taken "the exceptional step of publishing a registry of declared interests."

Kobinger argued publishing potential conflicts should be "the rule, not the exception."

"These things always come out one one way or the other," he said.

He added that it should not be left up to individual members to judge their potential conflicts of interest, but by a separate panel that could include ethicists and public health officials. 

"It's normal to have experts around the table that have conflict of interest," he told Galloway.

"It's not about if they do or not, it's about how you manage that," he said. 

"And to make them public, I think is important."

WATCH | Canada secures doses of 6 leading vaccine candidates

Canada now has deals in place to get millions of doses of six different COVID-19 vaccines before any of them are proven or ready. It's an effort to hedge bets in a high-stakes game to beat the virus. 1:35

Taxpayer dollars deserve transparency

The federal government has so far made agreements with Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, Pfizer and Moderna, for a total of 282 million doses.

Kobinger said the hundreds of millions of dollars involved in the deals is all taxpayer money.

"I think they have the right to know every little detail of how these decisions and recommendations [are reached]."

The Current requested an interview with Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains but he was not available. 

His office provided a statement, noting "that the Task Force does not make funding decisions."

"The Task Force's advice is a valued input, which complements the due diligence and analysis conducted by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, Health Canada, Public Services and Procurement Canada and others," the statement said.

"Their important work assists the efforts being undertaken by our government to secure access to promising vaccine candidates and bio manufacturing capacity."

Kobinger argued "whether or not they decide is not the point." 

"I would say that if the government decides to not take the recommendation, there could also be transparency there — an explanation as to why?" he said.

"Why not explain to the public why the recommendations are taken, and why they are not taken."

Earlier this month, Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner criticized the federal Liberal government for the lack of transparency.

"Canada's Conservatives will continue to press for these answers and demand to see a plan," she said in a statement.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler. 

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