Approving a vaccine is only part of the battle
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.