The House

Vaccines alone won't be enough to lift pandemic measures quickly, doctor warns

The co-chair of the task force studying COVID-19 immunity is warning that the arrival of vaccines in Canada doesn't guarantee protection against the virus, or signal that peoples' lives will soon return to normal.

Dr. Catherine Hankins says there are still too many unanswered questions about how COVID-19 immunity works

An Israeli nurse shows the media a simulated vaccination as part of the hospital's preparation for COVID-19 vaccinations at the Sheba Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, Israel, Dec. 10, 2020. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

The co-chair of the federal task force studying COVID-19 immunity is warning that the arrival of vaccines in Canada doesn't guarantee protection against the virus, or signal that peoples' lives will soon return to normal.

Dr. Catherine Hankins told CBC's The House that there are still too many unknowns about COVID-19 immunity and the effectiveness of vaccines to quickly move beyond the pandemic measures now in place, such as mask mandates and limits on social and business activities.

"We still have a lot of questions about immunity, even from natural infection with the wild virus. How long does protection last? Is it boosted when you get exposed again? What will be the impact if you get a vaccine and you've had a previous COVID-19 infection?" Hankins said in an interview airing Saturday.

"But we're working really hard now on looking at how we can differentiate the natural immunity from the vaccine-induced immunity."

Dr. Catherine Hankins and other members of the federal COVID-19 task force are trying to determine whether immunity obtained through a vaccine is different from immunity resulting from an infection.

Many medical experts see the arrival next week of the first doses of a vaccine produced by Pfizer-BioNTech as a light at the end of the tunnel — the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

Canada is expected to receive up to 249,000 doses before the end of the year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that "the first 30,000 doses are expected to arrive on Canadian soil in just a few days" and the vaccine will be "free for Canadians," with the federal government covering the costs.

Each province will decide who gets priority access to the vaccine.

Millions of additional doses will arrive in the months ahead now that Health Canada has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The Trudeau government also signed agreements with other vaccine manufacturers that are now under review by regulators — including one with Moderna. Canada has a contract to buy up to 56 million doses of Moderna's product.

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are reported to be about 95 per cent effective.

The co-chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force discusses what the recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine and impending inoculations mean for a return to normal life. 9:53

How long does immunity last?

Hankins agreed that the news on the vaccine front is exciting. The work of her immunity task force in the weeks and months ahead, she said, is to understand any differences in levels of immunity between those who have recovered from COVID-19 and those who have received the vaccine.

"We'll be looking [at], for those that have had infection and for those that have had the vaccine, what is the durability of that protection that they're getting?" she said.

"How long does it last? How does it respond if they get re-exposed in the community? Do they get a boost when they get re-exposed? Do they get worse symptoms? These are things we need to determine."

Health experts aren't the only ones asking these questions. Governments and businesses are looking ahead already to the vaccine as a kind of passport for any number of activities.

An 'immunity passport' and civil rights

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott confirmed this week that the province intends to issue some sort of 'proof of vaccination' to those who get the shot. She called it an essential tool.

"It's going to be really important for people to have for travel purposes, perhaps for work purposes, for going to theatres, cinemas or any other places where people will be in closer physical contact when we get through the worst of the pandemic," she said.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott has been musing about offering people some form of 'proof of vaccination.' (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association insists the idea of a vaccine certificate or immunity passport is a violation of Canadians' rights.

"It discriminates. It violates privacy and dignity. It's coercive and it violates Canadians' mobility rights," the association's executive director, Michael Bryant, told The House this week.

"Just because we are seeking herd immunity from a virus doesn't mean we require herd mentality to mark people with the scarlet letter of COVID. We live in a free and democratic society, and that means we don't publicly stratify the population on the basis of their private health status, even if it's a private health status that poses a hypothetical risk to others."

'It's not absolute proof of protection'

Hankins said those concerns are legitimate.

"I think this requires an all-of-society discussion about how we're going to do this, because it's not just proof of vaccination. I mean, if you've had COVID-19, you've got a level of immunity as well," she told The House.

"So we're going to have to think about how we do this in such a way that it is not coercive and that people understand that it's not absolute proof of protection either."

At a news conference on Friday, Prime Minister Trudeau repeated his call for Canadians to remain vigilant and respect public health guidelines.

"We've reserved enough doses so that every Canadian who wants a vaccine will be able to get it before the end of 2021. Vaccinations will help end the pandemic, but right now, our fight against COVID-19 is far from over. Again this week, far too many provinces reported record highs in cases and hospitalizations. These numbers must go down."

Hankins said it will be a while yet before Canadians can get their lives back to what they were pre-pandemic.

"And we all know, we're heading towards the shortest day in the year. This is a cold, dark winter ahead of us … we really need to buckle down and do everything we're being told to do," she said.

In the meantime, Hankins suggested Canadians make an effort to be socially connected while remaining physically distanced as the holiday season approaches.

As gifts go, it may not sound like much. But in the middle of a second pandemic wave, it might be the best gift we could get.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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