Medical experts across Canada found themselves scratching their heads Monday after the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) issued new COVID-19 vaccine guidelines that seemed to nudge people away from the notion of getting viral vector vaccines such as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
But the NACI — the body that recommends best practices for health officials across the country — says its characterization of the mRNA-based Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as “preferred” is nothing new.
To many who took to social media, it seemed to directly contradict the message health leaders have been sending for months: the best vaccine is the one that’s available.
The most controversial clause is, “NACI recommends that a complete series with a viral vector COVID-19 vaccine may be offered to individuals 30 years of age and older without contraindications, only if the individual prefers an earlier vaccine rather than wait for an mRNA vaccine.”
It goes on to say that should occur only if the benefits of the faster shot outweigh the risk of getting COVID-19 and the recipient is aware of its efficacy and the risk of getting a rare blood clot condition.
The chances of developing that condition are believed to be about 1 in 100,000.
Memorial University immunologist Rod Russell says the change in messaging seems like a 180-degree turn in many ways.
“Get the first one you can. We’ve all been saying that because it’s the quickest way to have any immunity against the virus,” Russell said Tuesday.
“They were encouraging people to get whatever vaccine you can get your hands on first, and now they’re basically saying there are preferred vaccines.”
On the other hand, Russell admits it’s no secret the mRNA vaccines have had a smoother ride in terms of adverse events and proven efficacy.
“If all the vaccines were on the table in front of me, I would always pick Moderna and Pfizer, because you don’t need to be a virologist to see that the numbers are better,” he said.
The big question is, where does it leave those who willingly jumped at the AstraZeneca vaccine when it was made available to them?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to alleviate concerns Tuesday while trying not to contradict the advice of the advisory committee.
“All vaccines in Canada have been approved by Health Canada. Our advice to provinces and territories, and to Canadians, has not changed,” he said in a national address. “Get your shot as soon as it’s your turn.”
Trudeau also said he personally has no regrets.
“I am extremely pleased that I got the AstraZeneca vaccine a number of weeks ago. It was extremely important to me to be able to protect my loved ones, to protect my family, and to do my part to ensure that all Canadians get through this,” he said.
“The impacts of catching COVID are far greater and far deadlier.”
However, a comment by NACI chair Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh on a national news show left many gobsmacked.
"This needs to be an informed consent,” she told CTV’s Evan Solomon. “If, for instance, my sister got the AZ vaccine and died of a thrombosis when I know it could have been prevented and that she is not in a high-risk area, I'm not sure I could live with it."
Russell said that’s a damaging message.
“That’s a very powerful statement. If (Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr.) Janice Fitzgerald in Newfoundland said that, nobody would be getting the vaccine.”
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Tuesday the public must understand that the science has to evolve with the evidence, and Russell said he understands that.
“On any given day, the scientists on these committees and Health Canada are making the best decision they can based on the evidence we have.”
But he says he stands by the advice he’s given in the past.
“I would still say, even today, I would encourage people to get the AstraZeneca vaccine because the frequency of blood clots is so low … it’s safer than half the stuff you do every day.”
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram