question period — Health

COVID -19 Vaccine Rollout

March 30, 2021


Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition)
[14:45]

My question today is again for the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

Senator Gold, on Monday the federal guidance on AstraZeneca changed again. First, giving it to people over 65 years of age was not safe, and then it was safe. Now, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization says Canadians under the age of 55 should not receive the AstraZeneca vaccine due to blood clotting concerns. Yet, in the very same news conference yesterday afternoon, Health Canada claimed there wasn’t enough data to change the way that the vaccine is used or make changes to the labelling.

Now, Senator Gold, what did the Minister of Health say about these conflicting messages? We have no idea. She was nowhere to be found yesterday. In fact, no member of the Trudeau government commented yesterday. What a pathetic lack of responsibility, leader.

Leader, does Health Canada support this decision? Why has no clarity been given to Canadians about this vaccine, neither to those who just have taken it nor to those who are about to do so?

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate)
[14:46]

Thank you for your question.

The new recommendations to which you refer, I think, demonstrate that Canada has a very strong surveillance system in place for vaccines that continues to operate and to make adjustments as new data arrives, even after a vaccine has been approved by Health Canada.

In that regard, Canadians can have confidence in the process, which is led by top independent experts.

As part of this process, Health Canada asked AstraZeneca for additional information on their vaccine that was precipitated by new data emerging from studies, if my memory serves me correctly, in Europe, and Germany in particular. In light of that request by Health Canada, out of an exercise of prudence for the safety of Canadians, the experts of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization issued new recommendations, to which you referred, to put on pause the administration of this vaccine for those under 55 to give Health Canada time to do its own independent analysis.

Senator Plett
[14:48]

You say Canadians should have confidence. The only thing that Canadians are absolutely confident about is that this government does not know what they’re doing.

Indeed, we should put a pause. We should put a pause on this government. AstraZeneca covers a significant portion of Canada’s COVID vaccination plan, especially this week. We are set to receive a loan of 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca from the United States today, but let’s not kid ourselves — Canadians are getting access to these vaccines only because the United States hasn’t deemed them safe for its own citizens, leader.

Now only Canadians over 55 years of age can take this vaccine, having been previously told those over 65 shouldn’t do so. Somehow, you read into this that we should have confidence.

The provinces have announced that they are putting a pause — they are putting a pause — on the use of AstraZeneca and the federal government has done nothing, leader, to give Canadians confidence about taking it. The chair of NACI said yesterday that this looks like a roller coaster, and she is right, leader.

Leader, what impact do you think your government’s confusion on AstraZeneca’s safety is going to have on vaccine hesitancy in Canada?

Senator Gold
[14:49]

Thank you for your question and commentary.

As recently as last night on CBC, health experts reassured Canadians that, in their assessment of the balance of risks and benefits, AstraZeneca remains a healthy and safe vaccine for those to whom it was administered, and also provided guidelines for those who have concerns. They explained that the pause they recommend, which has been implemented by the provinces, was a precautionary measure due to recent data that needs to be analyzed here in Canada.

The issue of vaccine hesitancy is a real problem and there is no denying that the AstraZeneca vaccine has had its challenges in its rollout. But Canadians should remember that millions and millions of citizens in other countries, notably in the United Kingdom, have been vaccinated with AstraZeneca. Canadians should remain confident that the plan this government has instituted to have a diversity of sources, including an accelerated delivery — I just read this morning of Pfizer — remains a sound plan to protect the health of Canadians.

Hon. Yonah Martin (Deputy Leader of the Opposition)
[14:51]

Leader, I agree that Canadians want to have confidence in the government. The problem is that the information they are getting is confusing and worrying them.

With regard to the question our leader asked about yesterday’s announcement by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to suspend the use of AstraZeneca vaccine for people under the age of 55; I’m 55 and I’m wondering how this applies to those 55 and over, and those just over that mark.

About 300,000 Canadians have already been given AstraZeneca vaccine in recent weeks. I can’t imagine how much confusion and concern people must be feeling after yesterday’s revised safety advice for this vaccine, yet again.

Leader, what is the guidance for Canadians who have received their first dose of AstraZeneca? Will it be okay for them to receive the second dose? If they can’t receive the second dose of AstraZeneca, can they have Pfizer or Moderna as a second dose, even though those vaccines use a different gene therapy technology?

Senator Gold
[14:52]

With regard to the last part of your question, honourable colleague, I have neither the expertise nor the knowledge to answer that. The answers will be provided by those with expertise in the field.

Yesterday, Canadians were reassured and advised by the representative of the committee that if they received their AstraZeneca doses within 20 days or beyond, they have nothing to worry about. The incidents of blood clotting that gave rise to this pause occurred in a population of mostly women — for reasons not yet determined — under 50, and the symptoms emerged in the period up to about 16 days after administration.

Again, as the information arrives and is analyzed, our health institutions are taking prudent steps to make sure that the vaccines administered to Canadians are safe.

[14:53]

Senator Gold, I’m sorry, but I’m susceptible to blood clots. There are people for whom this can lead to strokes and all sorts of issues.

It is worrisome that there is a revised announcement and that people are losing confidence. Canadians are looking for leadership and clear answers to important questions about their health — this is a matter of life and death as well — and they are getting neither from the Trudeau government. This is shameful.

My province of British Columbia has announced a circuit-breaker lockdown from today until April 19 in response to the rapid growth in cases in the province. Cases of the highly contagious P1 variant, first detected in Brazil, have more than doubled in B.C. in recent days. Our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has said there is concern about the effectiveness of vaccines against this variant.

Leader, we don’t have enough vaccines to stay ahead of the variants. Now that AstraZeneca has been pulled from use for those under age 55, what impact does this have on our ability to fight the third wave of COVID-19, not just in B.C. but right across our country? What does this mean for the possibility of new variants emerging in Canada?

Senator Gold
[14:55]

Thank you for your question. The emergence of new variants and the third wave that is upon us is a matter of great preoccupation. The Government of Canada understands the anxiety and worry of Canadians. What I’ve been trying to communicate, perhaps inadequately, is that the government continues to make its decisions based upon medical and scientific advice it’s getting in this rapidly changing environment. It would be irresponsible for the Government of Canada — or any government or health agency — to privilege consistency over accuracy. This government remains committed to providing up-to-date and accurate analysis and recommendations to guide the health care communities within the provinces and across this country on the basis of the evidence as it is emerging.