Monday, February 22, 2021

Canada's vaccine response is extremely disappointing


Here in Toronto, Canada's largest city, we have been in lockdown since the day after Christmas.  The Ontario government's stay-at-home order has been extended until at least until March 8th, due to fears about the spread of variants of the COVID-19 virus.  This didn't have to happen and its consequences are tragic.  Every day that the vaccines are delayed means that more people will become infected and more people will die.  It means that variants of the virus will spread more rapidly.  As I write this, two vulnerable members of my family have still not been vaccinated.  One is 92 years old and the other resides in a group home.  Millions of Canadians find themselves in similar situations.  I do not buy the excuse, however,  that we have to wait for other countries to deliver the vaccines to us.  Why, for heaven's sake, haven't we been able to produce our own vaccine?  Why have we been left in the dust as countries such as Germany, the U.K. and the United States receive the coronavirus vaccine before us?

Canada's COVID-19 response should have been swifter much more efficient.  It certainly would have helped if we had produced own vaccine.  After all, Canada is the country that gave the world a wonderful gift about a century ago. Two Canadian doctors, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, discovered insulin at the University of Toronto.  Insulin was purified and used in the successful treatment of diabetes.  

F. Banting (r) and C. Best circa 1924

In 2003, Canada experienced an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus.  According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, most of the infections originated in Toronto hospitals.  Thousands were quarantined during the outbreak and 44 people died.  SARS was a severe warning of what might happen in the future.  We had ample to time to prepare for a worse scenario.  Yet we were not prepared - not buy a longshot.  Why not?

On November 30, 2020, the Toronto Star published a column by journalist Linda McQuaig about Canada's inability to produce its own vaccine.  McQuaig pointed out that Canada once led the way in vaccine research and production.  She chronicled the history of the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories, which opened in 1914 as a public health commodity at the University of Toronto with the intention of  producing diphtheria antitoxin.  Of Connaught's pioneering work,  McQuaig wrote: "From the early part of the 20th century, Connaught created high quality medical treatments and vaccines for Canadians, including vaccines for smallpox, tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough, as Canadian medical historian Christopher Rutty has documented."  It also played an important role in assisting Dr. Jonas Salk with developing the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

Alas, Connaught was privatized in the 1980s as a cost-cutting measure by the conservative government of Brian Mulroney.  Its remains have been integrated into the vaccine division of Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical giant located Paris.  How penny wise and pound foolish!  Years later, we are paying a heavy price for that decision.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada had struck a deal with Novavax to produce its COVID-19 vaccine in this country.  That's all fine and dandy, but it comes much too late to prevent a large number of deaths and illnesses.  It is expected to be months before this potential made-in-Canada vaccine is approved and distributed nationwide.  That's not good enough.  People are dying!  We need the vaccine now!

Canada is not a Third World country.  It is not poor nation, bereft of resources.  There was no reason why the True North couldn't have produced its own vaccine much sooner.  So, why did it not happen in time to combat this horrid COVID-19 pandemic?  Why are we in a situation in which we have to depend on other countries for vaccines?  I am angry and profoundly disappointed that this has occurred.  It's not good enough to say that the vaccines will soon get rolling, that we have to be patient a bit longer.  People are suffering and dying in the meantime.  Their lives could have been spared.  The delay has given the variants of the disease more time to spread.  

Prime Minister Trudeau has promised that all Canadians will be vaccinated by the end of September.  I  can only hope his calculation is accurate.  Remember that Canada has a relatively small population.  It's not as if we have over a billion people to vaccinate like India or over 330 million like the United States.  We have a population of about 38 million people.  According to COVID-19 Tracker Canada, as of today, more than 1,055,288 have received received at least one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine.  Only 468,510 Canadians have been fully vaccinated.  Unfortunately, the vaccinations have been moving at a snail's pace.  Let's get rolling!  Let's get it done!

- Joanne

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