Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Tuesday, December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Tuesday, December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Emotional Dr. Theresa Tam very thankful for speed of COVID-19 vaccine delivery

For Tam the vaccines represent hope, but what keeps her up is the fear that not enough people will take them

Canada’s top public health officer has been a model of stoicism through the first year of COVID-19, but Dr. Theresa Tam still got a little choked up last week when the first Canadians were inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine.

“That was pretty emotional,” said Tam, in an interview reflecting back on the year many would like to forget.

“I think everyone was touched by those images.”

It has been just 355 days since Tam saw the first emails warning of a pneumonia cluster in the Chinese city of Wuhan that had no known origin. Within a week those infections were connected to a novel coronavirus, which causes what we now know as COVID-19.

In a year-end interview with The Canadian Press, Tam said she is in awe that the world was able to develop, test, produce, ship and now inject a vaccine less than a year later.

“That’s never been seen before in the history of public health,” she said. “So I think it is emotional for the perspective of just, just that alone how incredible a scientific achievement that was.”

Last spring, when vaccine development efforts were well underway, most experts warned it would be a year to 18 months before one was ready, if we were lucky. Instead, massive investments from governments and the private sector pushed the development, testing and review process forward at lightning speed.

Canada expects to vaccinate more than 200,000 people by the end of 2020, three million by the end of March, and most Canadians who want the vaccine by the end of September.

Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical adviser at Health Canada, said very early on, Health Canada began talking to regulators in other countries about the standards they should all use, including if any steps could be skipped to make things go faster.

“The answer to that was no,” said Sharma.

The international regulators worked “really, really early” to harmonize standards and let companies know what was expected of a vaccine. Health Canada adjusted the rules to allow its first reviews to happen while the final trials were ongoing, instead of after. Review teams were enlarged, they worked seven days a week and the companies kept their experts on constant standby to answer questions

That all paved the way for Health Canada to complete its review of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine candidate just five days after receiving the final documents from the company. Moderna, which was to submit its final documents Friday, is expected to follow a similar timeline. Together those two vaccines alone should bring enough doses to Canada to vaccinate 30 million people next year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told The Canadian Press last week that Canada moved early to identify and pre-purchase multiple promising vaccines because it had learned its lesson when it didn’t have enough personal protective equipment for front-line workers when the pandemic began.

“One of the things we told ourselves in April and May was we didn’t want to ever have to go through that again, this fight with the global community over what we needed,” Trudeau said.

Canada was able to adapt domestic factories to start churning out ventilators, face masks and hand sanitizer pretty quickly. Ramping up vaccine development and manufacturing capacity is going to take a lot longer. It is one of the gaping holes in Canada’s preparedness laid bare by COVID-19, and has put some other countries on track to vaccinate their entire populations a little bit faster.

READ MORE: Feds to invest $9 million in COVID treatments as vaccine rollout ramps up

The United States, which invested at least US$18 billion to develop and procure vaccines through its Operation Warp Speed program, has multiple companies making vaccines and is likely to get enough doses to vaccinate most of its 328 million people a few months ahead of Canada’s promise to vaccinate its population of 38 million.

Tam calls this “the pandemic of the century” and said while there are many lessons to help guide future pandemic planning, every virus is different. She was alarmed by the email warnings in December, because they sounded a lot like the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

But unlike SARS, which had a death rate above 10 per cent, COVID-19 proved to be milder in most patients, and infectious before symptoms ever appear, allowing it to spread faster and more widely.

Early advice that people without symptoms didn’t need to wear masks proved to be a mistake. Tam bristles a little when asked about it.

“Just to, again, try and set the record straight,” she says, people with symptoms were always told to wear masks. As soon as there was evidence the virus was spreading from people without symptoms, the advice started to change.

Canada also made a mistake focusing mostly on travellers who had been in China early on. Genetic tracing of the virus, said Tam, shows cases that spread in Canada mostly originated in people coming from Europe and the United States.

Still, she says the measures taken for this pandemic, the wide-scale lockdowns and the closure of the U.S.-Canada border to non-essential travel, were not in the playbook.

“When in the history of the world have we seen this?” Tam says. “When have we restricted the Canada-U.S. border? It’s really rather extraordinary times and measures.”

For Tam the vaccines represent hope, but what keeps her up at night is the fear that not enough people will take them. She says communicating the vaccines’ success to date, telling the stories of those who have had them, and encouraging people to look for credible information about them, are going to be the big focus as 2021 gets underway. And she said, she feels very optimistic that 2021 will be better.

Trudeau in November summed up the feelings of many when he said living in a pandemic “sucks.” In a year-end interview with The Canadian Press last week, he said if we can just hold on a little longer, keep following public health advice, and trust the science to get the vaccines, better is just a few months away.

“We’re going to be able to get through this long and difficult winter into a spring where things will be better, then the summer where things will be much better, because of vaccines,” he said.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirusvaccines

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A Courtenay resident labours to remove the snow build-up from around her car in February 2019. The area may see snow throughout the coming weekend. Black Press file photo
Snow, winter not done with the Comox Valley quite yet

Flurries, snow and cold temps predicted for the weekend

Dr. John Hooper is the new conductor of Island Voices. Photo supplied
Island Voices welcomes new conductor

This spring will be a time of transition for Island Voices chamber… Continue reading

From left—Rev. Ryan Slifka (minister, St. George’s); Ellen Wise (elder, St. George’s); Evangeline Mathura, (vice-president, Dawn to Dawn); Grant Shilling (outreach worker, Dawn to Dawn), with a cheque for $10,433.15.
Courtenay church donates more than $10,000 to transitional housing and support service

St. Goerge’s presents Dawn to Dawn with $10,433.15 cheque

A pine siskin is treated for salmonella poisoning at the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) hospital, in Merville. Photo by Gylaine Anderston.
Salmonella poisoning in birds and pets a result of unclean bird feeders

Have you ever endured a bout of food poisoning? If you remember… Continue reading

Inside the new shop operated by Wachiay Friendship Centre. Jared Kotyk (left), Jan Kotyk, Paloma Joy, Tim Gagnon, Jonah Hill, Jennifer Corbett and Tally, the shop dog. Photo supplied
Wachiay opens store-front arts shop in downtown Courtenay

There’s still tailor-work in the back of old AnnSew site, with the store in front

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Trees destroyed a Shoreacres home during a wind storm Jan. 13, 2021. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay woman flees just before tree crushes house

Pamala DeRosa is thankful to be alive

Gin, one of the Kantymirs’ two sheep. (Martha Wickett-Salmon Arm Observer)
Sheep start up ATV, sit in cars and go for walks in Salmon Arm

Until they bought two sheep, Ken and Karleen Kantymir didin’t realize just how social the animals are

Heather Lucier, a pastor at Kelowna Harvest Fellowship, speaks to an RCMP officer outside of Harvest Ministries on Sunday, Jan. 10. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Kelowna church fined 2nd time for violating public health order

Harvest Ministries in Kelowna has previously said they will fight the tickets in court

Emma Nunn from Alberni Valley Rescue Squad waits at the summit of Mount Arrowsmith for the rest of the AVRS rope rescue team on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. (PHOTO COURTESY DAVE POULSEN, AVRS)
UPDATE: Injured hiker among three rescued in the dark from Mount Arrowsmith

‘It was a very bad, very precarious spot to be able to locate them’

Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons was appointed to the NDP cabinet as minister of social development and poverty reduction after the October 2020 B.C. election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. job training fund increased for developmentally disabled

COVID-19 has affected 1,100 ‘precariously employed’ people

A Sooke woman is speaking up after she was almost tricked by a lottery scam, claiming she had won $950,000 with Set for Life Lottery. (File Photo)
‘I wanted it to be true so badly’: Sooke senior narrowly avoids lottery scam

88-year-old received letter stating she had won $950,000

B.C. driver’s licence and identity cards incorporate medical services, but the passport option for land crossings is being phased out. (B.C. government)
B.C. abandons border ID cards built into driver’s licence

$35 option costing ICBC millions as demand dwindles

Most Read