There’s a task force reviewing COVID-19 vaccines but the feds won’t say much about it

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The office of Canada’s innovation minister and the department he oversees are remaining tight-lipped about a task force that is reportedly advising the federal government on how it should invest in potential vaccines for the novel coronavirus.

The Liberal government hasn’t formally announced the launch of the vaccine task force or its membership. But during a news briefing on July 24, the federal health minister praised the task force as a group of experts “working diligently” to make sure Canada spends its dollars on “the most promising and the most effective” vaccine candidates.

Matt Jeneroux, health critic for the opposition Conservative Party, told Global News that’s how he first heard that a vaccine task force existed.

“All Canadians are waiting for a vaccine and if there’s a task force that’s supposedly working on this, why not let Canadians know that this is happening?” Jeneroux said.

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The Conservative MP said it’s his understanding the task force was struck several months ago.

“It only leads to the conclusion that, if this isn’t transparent, then what exactly is the government hiding with something that affects so many Canadians’ lives so much right now?” Jeneroux said.

Global News sent a list of questions about the vaccine task force to both Health Canada and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains’ office, including: Who sits on the task force? Who appointed the members? When were they appointed? What mandate were they given? And are members compensated for their work — and if so, how much?

Global News also asked Bains’ office why details of the task force’s membership and work don’t appear to have been made public to date.

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Aside from the question of compensation, none of those questions were answered in a long statement highlighting the government’s multi-million-dollar investments so far in vaccine research and development.

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“Expert advice from scientists, medical researchers, stakeholders and industry leaders continues to be an invaluable part of this evidence-based process and we will continue to rely on this consultation going forward,” said a statement sent by John Power, spokesperson for Bains.

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“This outside expert advice has been volunteered to assist Canada, and no compensation is paid for it other than customary costs to facilitate this work. We will have more to say on this in the near future.”

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Health Canada forwarded Global News’ questions to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED). In a statement, a department spokesperson provided a response similar to the minister’s office.

The department did not respond when Global News pressed again for answers. Global News also forwarded the same questions to Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s office.

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Amir Attaran, an epidemiology and public health professor at the University of Ottawa who has been openly critical about the government’s pandemic response, said he sees “no reason for secrecy” on the matter.

“How could you not be transparent about this?” he said. “We’re about to make a decision that plays into whether this country safely reopens and lives are saved and they won’t say who their advisers are.”

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Task force is examining global vaccine candidates: Tam

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said earlier this week that the task force consists of experts “outside of government” who have experience in vaccination, vaccine development, and infectious diseases, as well as “industry knowledge.”

“Their role is to provide advice to the ministers (of health and ISED),” Tam said on Tuesday. “Ultimately, the spending and how the money is spent is up to the government itself, but the task force will provide advice.”

To provide that advice, the top doctor said she believes the task force is meeting two or three times weekly to review “ongoing evidence base” on global vaccine candidates — of which they are over 100, she added.

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As countries around the world queue up for those candidates, health experts and reporters have been asking recently why Canada hasn’t yet made any pre-purchases of its own and what that will mean for Canadians’ access to a vaccine once it’s available.

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“You have countries like (the) U.K., France, Germany, U.S. — all have put in orders for hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines that may or may not work, but at least they’re securing a potential supply,” Jeneroux said.

“If that’s what this (vaccine) task force is doing, then OK. Then let’s add Canada to that list. But it appears up to this point, without being transparent on what this task force is doing, we haven’t done anything like that yet.”

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Health experts have estimated an effective vaccine could be ready for human use toward the end of 2020 or in 2021.

“We are now in a position where, even if everything goes beautifully, we’re going to get the vaccine months later than the U.S. and Europe, too,” Attaran told Global News in an interview on July 28.

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On Tuesday, Tam said she believed information about the task force was available on the Government of Canada’s website. Global News couldn’t find any record of the federal vaccine task force online.

Global News can confirm the vaccine task force is distinct from the already-existing National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

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By comparison, a separate COVID-19 immunity task force the government struck in April has its own dedicated website.

Information about the immunity task force’s membership, leadership, mandate and principles are all available on the site, including updates on the group’s work.

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