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Vaccines are now the priority to counter pandemic fatigue

Canada will undoubtedly implement a number of changes in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, most directly in the form of having enough personal protective equipment on hand and ensuring access to vaccines and other medications.

Even early on in the crisis, there was talk of the need to promote domestic production capability for items such as masks, gloves and gowns. More recently, the focus has shifted to vaccine research and production.

This week, a parliamentary committee heard the government was too slow to react and provided too little in the way of financial support to the country’s pharmaceutical industry to help fuel a domestic vaccine.

Ottawa could have tossed hundreds of millions of dollars at each of, say, a dozen domestic countries – getting a drug through all of the trials needed for regulatory approval can take upwards of $300 million – but that would not have guaranteed the development of a vaccine. It would also have had to hedge its bets by preordering from a number of the large international pharmaceutical companies to ensure access if and when a vaccine became available, which is the approach the government did in fact take.

The government has signed contracts to buy 234 million vaccine doses from seven different companies. To date, only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna offerings have been approved by Health Canada, but others are under study at this point. If all seven products are approved, the country would have enough vaccine to inoculate everyone three times, an overabundance that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to share with the rest of the world.

Given the time lag between developing a successful vaccine, having it improved and manufacturing large quantities, Canada and many other wealthy countries diversified the options by putting eggs in more than one basket. That was the right thing to do given what’s at stake.

In that vein, while ongoing investigations into today’s moves and preparing for the next pandemic are important, far more pressing is getting shots into arms as quickly as possible now.

Not only are new variants throwing a wrench into the equation – each new strain changes the testing pattern and forces us to look at the efficacy of existing vaccines – they also increase the risk that the number of cases will rise again given increased transmissibility, for instance. The sooner everyone is vaccinated, the sooner new variants are likely to be less harmful.

Moreover, pandemic fatigue grows worse over time. Having just come through a restrictive lockdown, Ontarians are showing themselves eager to get back out – even the significant limitations of the red zone seem liberating. The pre-Christmas situation was hardly life as usual, but its resumption has the air of a return to the new normal, whatever that may entail.

Now is not the time to let down our guard, however. Sure, the number of active cases dropped, but that was due to the lockdown. As we should all be aware at this point, the numbers can easily climb again. Having been down this road before in the past year, there are fewer excuses for lowering the most important defenses: wearing a mask and maintaining physical distancing from others outside of our bubbles.  The numbers dropped not because the virus was waning but because we were staying home, avoiding group situations and adopting good hygiene – relaxing our vigilance provides the virus an opportunity to spread once again.

While some of us may have been lulled into a false sense of security by lower cases counts and the re-opening of the economy, COVID-19 remains a threat. Health officials continue to warn us that is the case, with varying levels of response from the public: some of us have maintained new habits of social distancing, for example, while others are acting like the virus is a thing of the past.

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