Toronto Star

Approving a vaccine is only part of the battle

- Thomas Walkom Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based freelance contributi­ng columnist for the Star. Reach him via email:

With one vaccine approved and more on the way, it would be easy to think the battle against COVID-19 is over.

Certainly, politician­s are taking the opportunit­y to run victory laps.

“Friends, the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday, after Health Canada announced that it had approved a COVID-19 vaccine manufactur­ed jointly by the drug giant Pfizer and biotechnol­ogy company BioNTech.

But while vaccine approval is important, it marks only part of the story of the fight against the pandemic. There are still plenty of questions to be answered.

First, who will get the vaccine? A few days ago, Ontario had mapped out a strategy that would see vulnerable nursing home residents given priority.

But it now seems that the Pfizer vaccine is so fragile that it cannot be shipped safely to individual nursing homes from the 14 centralize­d hospital depots across Canada where it is supposed to be stored.

That means that if nursing home residents continue to be given top priority and the vaccine cannot be transporte­d to them, they will have to be transporte­d to it.

The alternativ­e would be a decision to postpone inoculatio­n of nursing home residents until a different, easy-to-administer vaccine is approved. Such a delay, however, could result in more long-term-care deaths.

It will be interestin­g to see what government­s decide to do here.

There are other questions involving the Pfizer vaccine that still need to be answered.

How long does the vaccinatio­n last? Right now, no one knows. By necessity, the drug trials to date have been shortterm. We will have to see whether the effects of the new vaccine last longer than a few months.

Can vaccinated persons still pass on the virus? This is a crucial question that has not yet been answered. If inoculated persons can continue to infect others, the overall effectiven­ess of the vaccine is greatly reduced.

How quickly does the virus mutate? If it stays relatively stable, that’s one thing. If it remakes itself every few months that’s another.

What about children? The Health Canada approval only covers those over 16.

Can other countries interfere with Canada’s ability to purchase vaccines internatio­nally? The Canadian government says no.

But already, U.S. President Donald Trump has signed an executive order requiring business to give priority to American needs.

The Pfizer vaccines sold to Canada are currently manufactur­ed in Belgium. These Belgian-made vaccines are then transporte­d by the U.S. carrier UPS to Canada via Kentucky.

This gives Washington plenty of leeway to meddle in vaccine shipments destined for Canada. And given the dire straits in which Americans find themselves in this pandemic, both Trump and his successor, president-elect Joe Biden, will be under pressure to use that leeway.

None of this is to disparage the medicine. There is every indication that the Pfizer vaccine will prove useful in the battle against the coronaviru­s.

In particular, a vaccine program aggressive­ly administer­ed by government­s that take long-term care seriously could end the carnage in nursing homes and save scores of lives.

The vaccine isn’t a silver bullet. It can only do what it can do. It doesn’t eliminate the need for continued lockdowns.

But it is something. And that’s better than the alternativ­e.

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