16.03.2021

“People are even delivering the vaccine on dogsleds”

No other country has ordered more coronavirus vaccine per capita than Canada. The Canadian infectious disease specialist Thomas J. Marrie explains why vaccinating is nonetheless going slowly and how the country reacts to false reports. He is a guest at the virtual Joint Academy Day, where representatives of the Royal Society of Canada and the OeAW exchange ideas about current global challenges. The event can be followed via livestream on March 18th from 3 p.m.

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In contrast to the neighboring USA, the coronavirus has spread much more slowly in Canada. The country was seen as a role model when it came to virus containment – but there, too, concerns about mutations are now growing. What's more, the vaccination program against COVID-19 is going too slowly. There is not enough vaccine, even though Canada ordered the most vaccine doses per capita than any other country. In an interview, Canadian doctor Thomas J. Marrie explains the challenges the country is facing when it comes to acquiring and distributing vaccines.

As a representative of the Royal Society of Canada, he is speaking at this year's "Joint Academy Day" of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) on March 18, 2021. The joint meeting between the OeAW and its Canadian counterpart deals with a range of current societal challenges in several sessions, which can be followed via livestream from 3 p.m. One of these challenges is the corona crisis.

For Marrie, one ray of hope last year was the communication of evidence-based science on SARS-CoV-2. A working group from the Royal Society of Canada led this effort: "Over 400 experts are engaged in preparing Policy Briefings and informed perspectives to ensure that everyone has access to independent, evidence-based science." For Marrie it is clear: "It is up to all of us to speak out against fake news regarding COVID-19."

Canada has ordered the most vaccine doses per capita in the world, but so far the country seems to be lagging behind in corona vaccinations. Why?

Thomas J. Marrie: We've ordered a lot, but so far not a lot has materialized in Canada. One reason is that we have very little manufacturing capacity for this vaccine in Canada and hence we are dependent upon many other countries. We've also been slow to organize ourselves as to how to distribute the vaccine. There are no 24-hour vaccination sites as in the US, where they run them around the clock.

We are a vast country. The northern parts of our country are very sparsely populated. Having vaccines that require extraordinary storage requirements makes it difficult to distribute them to northern Canada.

Another reason: We are a vast country. The northern parts of our country are very sparsely populated. Having vaccines that require extraordinary storage requirements makes it difficult to distribute them to northern Canada. People are even delivering the vaccine on dogsleds.

We've learned many lessons, one of which is – in terms of some supply chains: You have to look at what you need to keep your country viable in the event of another crisis, whether it's a pandemic or some other disaster. Climate change will probably be our next big one to deal with.

How worried are you so far in Canada about the mutations that have emerged?

Marrie: The fact is, we don't know enough. We're already seeing an increase in cases in the central part of Canada, especially Ontario. Those cases are all due to some of the new variants. The question is: Are these variants going to escape the effects of the vaccine?

Corona communication has also been a challenge for science. As a result of the pandemic, science communicates with politics, but also with the public. How did that work out in Canada?

Marrie: Communication has been and is an issue on multiple levels regarding COVID-19. The challenge has been the amount of mis- and disinformation that's available. There are individuals, organizations, and even prominent politicians who have engaged in the disinformation piece. One of the bright spots has been a task force on COVID-19 from the Royal Society of Canada – this is what I'll be talking about at the Joint Academy Day. Over 400 experts are engaged in preparing Policy Briefings and informed perspectives to ensure that Canadians have access to independent, evidence-based science. One of the members of that task force has started a movement to bring together scientists, journalists, and others to combat misinformation, that is gaining a lot of momentum. It becomes incumbent on all of us to combat misinformation – and there are many groups and particular subgroups that we need to speak to.

It becomes incumbent on all of us to combat misinformation.

As Canada faces falling numbers of COVID-19 cases, what lessons have been learned from the second wave?

Marrie: Canada is a federation and health is a provincial responsibility – that complicates things. The lessons depend upon where you are in our country. I live in the east and Nova Scotia next to the Atlantic Ocean. Together with New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland Labrador, it is the least populated part of Canada. We haven't had many cases at all; only a few little outbreaks. Whereas in Ontario and Quebec, which are the two most heavily populated provinces, we have had most of the cases. Or for example, Alberta, which is a western province next to British Columbia, has a couple of very large meatpacking plants, which have been the site of several outbreaks.

Canada is a federation and health is a provincial responsibility – that complicates things.

How would you assess the Canadian management of the crisis?

Marrie: Overall, we've done well. Although in some sectors there have been big problems, in particular in long term care. Despite the challenges of our federal system, the central government and the provincial governments have worked well together. It's been amazing how well political leaders have taken the responsibility very seriously and have deferred to the advice from public health.

If you had to address a Corona message to the population, what would it be?

Marrie: I'm going to answer with two words: stay safe.

 

AT A GLANCE

Thomas J. Marrie is known in Canada as a specialist in infectious diseases. In 1999 he became Chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Alberta, in 2009 Dean Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Among other things, he has acted as Chairman of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, as well as President of the Canadian Association of Professors of Medicine, the Canadian Infectious Disease Society, and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Marrie is a member of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Event tip:

What academies can contribute to overcoming current scientific and societal challenges is traditionally what the annual "Joint Academy Day" of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) is about. This year the Royal Society of Canada is invited to Vienna. Due to the corona pandemic, the meeting will take place on March 18 as a virtual webinar and is explicitly aimed at the public. The entire event, in which individual sessions deal with the corona pandemic as well as climate change, biodiversity, and public health, can be followed live on the OeAW website from 3 p.m. onwards.

Programme & Livestream