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

James Taylor, a Saanich resident and member of the Curve Lake First Nation, walked all over Greater Victoria on May 5 in honour of Red Dress Day and the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Devon Bidal/News staff)
Indigenous man walks Greater Victoria to honour missing and murdered women and girls

James Taylor, of the Curve Lake First Nation, marks Red Dress Day with healing walk, songs

A man who allegedly spat at and yelled racial slurs at an Asian family was arrested for hate-motivated assault Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
Man arrested for allegedly spitting, yelling anti-Asian racial slurs at a mother and kids

The man was arrested for hate-motivated assault near Quadra Elementary School Tuesday

Victoria police is asking for the public’s assistance in identifying this suspect after they allegedly robbed a Douglas Street bank on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of VicPD)
Police seek identity of suspect who alllegedly robbed Victoria bank

Officers were called to a bank in the 1000-block of Douglas Street just after 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday

Victoria police said Wednesday that they continue to look for Belinda Ann Cameron, who was last seen on May 5, 2005. (Photo courtesy of VicPD)
Victoria police still looking for Belinda Cameron who was last seen 16 years ago

Cameron was reported missing on June 4, 2005, and her case is deemed suspicious

Colwood-based writer Esi Edugyan will speak about the deep research she did before writing <em>Washington Black</em>, her third novel. (Black Press Media file photo)
Colwood author Esi Edugyan giving talk May 6 about her research and writing process

Event is part of Royal Road’s Changemaker series celebrating its 25th anniversary

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of May 4

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you plan to travel on the Victoria Day long weekend?

It’s the unofficial start to the summer season. A time of barbecues,… Continue reading

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O���Connell photo)
Clash between loggers, activists halts forestry operations over Fairy Creek

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

The courthouse in Nanaimo, B.C. (News Bulletin file)
Island man sentenced in Nanaimo after causing a dog unnecessary pain and suffering

Kiefer Tyson Giroux, 26, of Nanoose Bay, given six-month sentence

Following a one-year pause due to the pandemic, the Snowbirds were back in the skies over the Comox Valley Wednesday (May 5) morning. Photo by Erin Haluschak
Video: Snowbirds hold first training session in Comox Valley in more than 2 years

The team will conduct their training from May 4 to 26 in the area

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

Most Read