Too soon to make a call on COVID-19 vaccine priorities: Manitoba ethics prof

Click to play video: 'Ethics behind vaccination priorities'
Ethics behind vaccination priorities
WATCH: Arthur Schafer, founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, explores the ethics behind the prioritization on who should get the COVID-19 vaccine first. – Dec 2, 2020

Despite a number of potential COVID-19 vaccines in the works — and reports from the federal government that Canada has “similar timelines” to the U.S. and Europe for approval of vaccines — there are still more questions than answers about what a Canadian vaccine program might look like.

Arthur Schafer, professor at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Applied Ethics, told Global News there are still a number of blanks that need to be filled in before we know who will benefit the most from a coronavirus vaccine, and who should get first access.

“All we know about any of the three vaccines that seem to be leading in this race, we know from press releases of the various drug companies,” Schafer said.

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“Nothing has been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and no independent scientists have been able to see the data.

“Will the vaccine work, for example, for elderly people? For those who are immune-compromised? Will it be safe for the frail elderly, will it be safe for pregnant women, will it be safe for those who have what doctors call comorbidities?”

Schafer said the intuitive first step would be to first vaccinate those in places with the greatest risk of spread — nursing homes, hospitals, and institutions… but with a caveat.

“One of the questions to which we don’t yet have the answer is if the vaccine protects you — let’s say if you’re a doctor or nurse — so that you don’t get symptoms, does it also protect you from being infectious?”

Until we have an answer to that question, he said, it’s difficult to have a firm grasp on who should get vaccines when.

As for the potential for mandatory vaccinations, Schafer doesn’t consider it an important issue — and only might come in to play for specific jobs — nursing home employees, for example, if it’s proven that a vaccine will protect staff from being infectious.

If it’s necessary and vital to protect patients, he said, it could become a condition of certain jobs.

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“I’m very much opposed to making any kind of medicine mandatory,” said Schafer.

“If it’s a young child and it’s life-saving meds and the parents are refusing it — perhaps for religious grounds or irrationally — then we might impose it, but competent adults shouldn’t forcibly have medicine injected in them.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Manitoba’s top doctor expects initial vaccine procurement from feds to be in ‘very short supply’'
Coronavirus: Manitoba’s top doctor expects initial vaccine procurement from feds to be in ‘very short supply’

Manitoba’s top public health official, Dr. Brent Roussin, said Wednesday that there remain questions on the province’s end about vaccines as well.

“Overall the procurement and distribution of the vaccine is at the federal level,” Roussin said.

“We definitely collaborate with all the provincial, territorial and federal jurisdictions to look at that, but it’s really how much of this vaccine can be procured and the timing and how it gets distributed out to the region.

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“Right now, we don’t have a vaccine that’s approved as of yet in Canada.”

Roussin said the plan is that, hopefully, any Manitoban who wants to be vaccinated will be able to do so, but it’s unlikely to be within the next few months, as the province will be looking at a very short supply at first.

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