Premier Jason Kenney says Albertans should be able to choose their COVID-19 vaccine, but experts warn that waiting for a preferential jab could be detrimental to fighting the pandemic.
During a Facebook live event earlier this week, Kenney said once he's eligible for the vaccine, he expects to be able to choose between what is available.
"I've been clear with our health officials here that people must have a choice, partly to reflect their conscientious concerns that they may have on those ethical issues," Kenney said Wednesday.
The premier said he has heard ethical concerns from people about the creation of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which use a cell line extracted from a fetus almost 50 years ago.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said earlier this month that parishioners should try to avoid taking these viral vector vaccines as they may be from "abortion-derived cell lines."
The organization walked that line back somewhat on Thursday with a clarification message that "all COVID-19 vaccines that are medically approved by the relevant health authorities may be licitly received by Catholics."
Ethical concerns are not the only reason Albertans may prefer a certain vaccine, Kenney said.
"They may be really well read in the science of the competing vaccines, and they may choose one over another for reasons of tested efficacy or other factors."
Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna both have been determined by Health Canada to have efficacy rates of around 95 per cent. AstraZeneca-Oxford has an efficacy rate of 62 per cent, while Johnson & Johnson has an efficacy rate of 66.9 per cent.
Alberta's chief medical officer of health said Thursday that all currently available vaccines protect against severe outcomes.
"Each one that we have available right now is a benefit to that person who takes it and … can help protect others around them," Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
Differences minor, say experts
Dr. Noel Gibney, co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, says the differences between the vaccines' efficacy are minor.
The fact that none of them have been tested in a single trial against one another, along with different trial parameters, makes direct comparison difficult, he said.
Although they're all effective for combating the pandemic.
"If we want to have a vaccine that prevents people getting seriously ill, going into hospitals, and dying and using up all of our hospital facilities — but also significantly impacting our economies — frankly, the best vaccine is the one you can get the quickest into your arm," Gibney said.
Gibney says when vaccines are more readily available or require booster shots in the future, choice may be an option — but not in the midst of a pandemic when supplies are limited.
"At this point in time, vaccine choice is a luxury we simply can't afford."
He also points out that the cell line in question, Human Embryonic Kidney 293, is widely used to manufacture different vaccines and other medical products.
The Vatican has released its own moral guidance on the subject, saying it is permissible for Catholics to take vaccines recognized as clinically safe and effective as long as they affirm that they do not condone abortions.
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, a University of Alberta infectious diseases specialist, said it's understandable why people might look at reported numbers from early trials and want the best option.
But early real world studies now coming out indicate there may not be much of a difference, she said.
"When people go out in the era of the pandemic, you're afraid of getting an illness that could land you in hospital or critically ill — not necessarily so afraid of getting a nuisance cold, which is what you would get for the vast majority of people who were exposed and got infected after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine."
Saxinger said public health is in the best position to decide which population is best supported by which vaccine, but that people should not wait out.
"It's kind of like saying, 'Well, I have a shield that covers me from my head to my knees and I'm going to go out into the battlefield, or I'm going to wait for the one that covers me all the way to my ankles and I'm just going to go out with nothing until then.'"
"To me, that doesn't really make sense."
As part of Step 2 of its vaccine rollout, the province is offering the AstraZeneca vaccine to Albertans aged 50 to 60 or Indigenous individuals aged 35 to 49 without a severe chronic illness.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been used to inoculate groups targeted for their age, chronic health conditions or living arrangements, but may become more widely available in the future.