EDMONTON/TORONTO — While Canada’s largest-ever mass vaccination program is administering tens of thousands of COVID-19 shots every day, many Canadians haven’t got a shot and don’t plan to anytime soon.
According to CTVNews.ca’s vaccine tracker, as of Aug. 13, approximately 18.3 per cent of the eligible population (12+) was unvaccinated.
Because numbers don’t explain why some are opting not to get vaccinated, CTVNews.ca asked Canadians who haven’t got a shot to share their reasons.
The responses were emailed to CTVNews.ca and have not been independently verified.
Among the responses from people across the country, the majority expressed concerns about potential side-effects and the amount of research and testing of the vaccines as the main reasons for their hesitancy.
Most rejected the term “anti-vaxxer,” many noting that they have received other vaccinations in the past, but have serious concerns about the novelty of the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Canada.
“We are not anti-vaxxers (all our children have received all the regular childhood vaccines up to this point) and we are not pro-vaxxers (we have not received the COVID vaccine). We believe everyone should have the right to make their own decisions, whether for vaccines or not, based on fully informed sources of information,” wrote Marina Rietema of Guelph, Ont.
“This is not a decision made lightly, based on fear, or ridiculous information dug up from the nether regions of the internet. It is rooted in the lack of trust in those making conclusions based on very limited time and data.”
Rietema, like many others who wrote to CTVNews.ca, said that she is very concerned about the vaccines’ accelerated development and testing process, as well as profit-driven interests of pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the shots.
“I have thought about getting ‘the jab’ many times in the last year, but I’ve decided not to for several reasons. Mainly for me it comes down to trust. I don’t trust the government, or big pharma to have my best interests in mind,” wrote Keegan Foden, who lives in the Fraser Health region of B.C.
“I don’t doubt that these vaccines work to reduce the effects of COVID-19, but I don’t think anyone could possibly know what the long-term ramifications of taking these drugs will be.
I do believe the public health authorities are ‘following the science,’ I just don’t think the science is figured out yet, and I don’t want to be part of the experiment.”
Numerous other emailers shared their objection to being what they described as a “guinea pig” for the mRNA vaccines, which many called “experimental.”
Gargi Singh said she and her husband aren’t vaccinated because they’re wary of the mRNA technology specifically.
“My husband and I are all for vaccinations. However, we are very apprehensive of the mRNA vaccines and prefer the safe, tested method of vaccination – inactivated/weakened virus vaccines,” she wrote. “The ‘true vaccines’ method deployed for years decades since polio.”
Each of the four COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in Canada underwent several clinical trials involving thousands of participants before being subjected to independent review by Health Canada.
And while doctors and vaccinologists have reassured the public that speed doesn’t mean sloppiness in the case of COVID-19 vaccine development, one Canadian study has shown this concern remains one of the main drivers of vaccine hesitancy.
WAITING FOR A DIFFERENT BRAND
Gabe Boisvert of Stirling, Ont. told CTVNews.ca that he is waiting for a specific company’s COVID-19 vaccine: Novavax.
“[I] will fully vaccinate with it as soon as it is available,” he wrote.
Boisvert said he is concerned that Canadians don’t have any vaccine options that don’t use mRNA technology. He added that he isn’t comfortable with the technology despite doing “many months” of research on it.
“Ultimately, I will not be rushed into any decision affecting my body and have carefully considered this. I choose Novavax and will wait to be vaccinated without feeling rushed or shamed by this choice to wait,” Boisvert wrote.
The Novavax shot is a protein subunit vaccine and contains fragments of the antigen so the body doesn’t need to produce them.
Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine has not been authorized for use in Canada yet. However, Canada has agreements to purchase millions of doses once the inoculation is authorized.
The vaccine candidate is currently in Phase 3 trials with a recent large study finding the two-shot vaccine was about 90 per cent effective overall.
Other Canadians also said they are waiting for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the plant-based, Canadian-made Medicago vaccine.
Medicago is still doing Phase 3 trials and the company hopes to be ready for authorization before Christmas.
Health Canada approved the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in early March, but after its quality review of a first shipment from a facility in Baltimore, Mary., it decided not to distribute the vaccines to provinces.
Procurement Minister Anita Anand said on Aug. 12 that because Canada has enough vaccines to vaccinate all Canadians twice, the government is redirecting extra Johnson & Johnson supply to the global vaccine-sharing network COVAX, to help low and middle-income countries boost their vaccination efforts.
But fears over short- and long-term side-effects are nearly as common.
“I only have one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and I refuse to get the second dose until there is more data available investigating numerous types of concerning side effects,” wrote Alberta resident Angie Coombes, who told CTVNews.ca by email that she experienced unusual menstrual bleeding after receiving her first dose.
While there is yet to be enough research to establish a direct link between the vaccine and women’s menstrual cycles, U.S. researchers for an open-ended study have collected more than 140,000 reports from people who say they’ve noticed a change in their periods after vaccination.
“I’m worried that every time I have to get a COVID booster shot, I’m going to be putting myself at risk each and every time,” Lalla, who is fully vaccinated, told CTVNews.ca. “Just because adverse events are rare, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
According to Health Canada’s latest data, 11,471 “adverse events” related to the COVID-19 vaccine have been reported in Canada. Of those, 8,622 were considered to be non-serious, and 2,849 were considered serious.
However, some may have gone unreported if the person did not seek medical attention, or if the symptom was not reported as an adverse event by a health-care professional.
And readers were not just concerned over short-term effects, either. Many wrote in expressing fears over how the vaccine might affect them in the years to come.
“Even though the immediate effect of COVID-19 vaccine may seem to be bringing down infections and rate of hospitalization, I am wary of the long term side effects. This vaccine may claim to be effective but how old is it? How many years of research and clinical trials have these vaccines gone through?” Romali Joshi wrote.
Foden said he doesn’t doubt that the vaccines work to reduce the effects of COVID-19, but he doesn’t think anyone could possibly know what the long-term effects of taking them will be.
“It seems like every couple of weeks a new side effect pops up, and honestly to me it sounds like the cure may be worse than the disease,” he wrote. “I do believe the public health authorities are ‘following the science,’ I just don’t think the science is figured out yet, and I don’t want to be part of the experiment.”
PRE-EXISTING HEALTH CONDITIONS
Besides concerns over the safety of mRNA vaccine technology, the second-most-common reason for not being vaccinated among those who wrote in was due to a pre-existing medical condition.
Numerous respondents said they were told by a medical professional to avoid the vaccine because they had experienced adverse reactions to immunization in the past or because they were at risk for having an allergic reaction.
Gail Campbell, from Edmonton, said she developed ME/CFS (Myalgic encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) after an immunization she received 33 years ago.
“I still have the condition and was told by an internal medicine specialist that that was probably what triggered me getting this debilitating disease back in 1988. I have not had a vaccination since and don’t plan to,” she wrote.
Others said they were unsure if the vaccines would make their existing medical condition worse and they didn’t want to take the risk.
Lynda Dietrich, from Guelph, Ont., said she is not getting a COVID-19 vaccine because she fears it will trigger a relapse of her Guillain Barre Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages the nerves, which she said she developed in 2006.
“I am terrified to get COVID but am more terrified to have a relapse of GBS,” she said.
Toby MacLeod is also worried about being vaccinated after he had a rare tumour removed from his right facial nerve two years ago that has left him with facial nerve damage.
Due to very rare reports of Bell’s palsy, which is an episode of muscle weakness or paralysis on one side of the face, following vaccination with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots, MacLead said he doesn’t want to risk further damage to his face.
“I am not an anti-vaxer, I’m some one with a rare medical condition that has legitimate concerns,” he wrote.
A recent report released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Pfizer’s clinical trial of the vaccine shows that cases of Bell’s palsy occurred in only four participants out of approximately 43,000, about half of whom received the vaccine and half of whom received the placebo.
NATURAL IMMUNITY, SURVIVABLE DISEASE
Many Canadians also told CTVNews.ca they aren’t getting vaccinated against COVID-19 because they either already had the disease and believe they have sufficient antibodies to protect themselves, or they said they are healthy enough to survive the disease should they contract it.
Annalisa Cannella, who is from Montreal, said she refuses to get the vaccine because she and 15 members of her family contracted COVID-19 in late 2020 and now believe they have a “natural immunity” against the disease.
Cannella said she thinks that the antibodies she has after being sick “should be more reliable” than those generated from a vaccine.
Cannella acknowledged that her family “had it pretty good” in that none of them had severe symptoms with COVID-19 infection and all recovered.
“The average cold affects me more than when I had COVID. My five kids had it and most didn’t even have symptoms,” she wrote.
Because her family survived, Cannella said she doesn’t see the point in getting vaccinated.
“With the vaccine you can still transmit the virus to others and get it,” she wrote. “So honestly I see no benefit to getting this rushed experimental injection.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says the risk of getting COVID-19 is “evolving daily and varies” between communities, genders and ages.
However, the agency notes that the risk to most Canadians “remains high” and recommends anyone who is eligible get vaccinated.
While COVID-19 can make anyone sick, some Canadians are at risk of more severe disease or outcomes.
PHAC says older adults (those over 60), people of any age with chronic medical conditions, those who are immunocompromised and people living with obesity are most at risk.
The agency added that it is important for eligible Canadians to get the shot, especially since some of those who are most at-risk of severe outcomes may not be able to get vaccinated due to certain medications or a suppressed immune system.
Christina Brown of Edmonton said she contracted COVID-19 a few months ago and therefore already has antibodies to protect herself.
“It seems redundant for me to get something that claims to give me what I already have,” she wrote.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 90-99 per cent of individuals infected with COVID-19 develop “detectable neutralizing antibodies.” However, the WHO says currently available data suggests that this varies depending on the patient’s age and their severity of symptoms.
“The strength and duration of the immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 are not completely understood,” the WHO said in a May 2021 report.
The agency said that most people’s immune responses to COVID-19 remain “robust and protective against reinfection for at least 6-8 months” and provide “similar protection against symptomatic disease as vaccination,” but cautioned that more research is needed.
The WHO warned that current data available does not take into account emerging virus variants that have the ability to evade immune response.
A LACK OF TRUST, CONCERNS OVER VACCINE PASSPORTS
A lack of trust in both the government and the media was also a common theme among Canadians who emailed CTVNews.ca, many of whom cited concerns about a lack of opposing opinions or views on vaccines.
“All you report on is the official narrative that vaccines are the only option and they are completely safe. For the record, we are not expecting you to endorse any of these alternate views, but we want to hear them,” wrote a reader who asked to be identified only as Matthew George.
“We want to have a healthy discussion about all of the potential risks (and benefits) to the vaccines.”
Several readers echoed this sentiment, adding that they felt there has been a lack of transparency from the government.
“We elect people to take care of our best interests and they have failed to do so time and time again. Likely will a third time,” said Jesse May of Toronto. “Resistance of getting a vaccine is our way of rebelling to an obviously failed and incompetent political system in this country. Getting the needle has been used as a poster card.”
Many also suggested that potential government-mandated “passports” certifying vaccination would infringe on their rights.
“The potential pressure that will be applied by vaccination passports should be seen as a breach of human rights,” wrote 33-year-old Steven Sydney. “While a passport would ultimately make me consider getting vaccinated, it will be a strongly weighted decision in which the social benefits must be worth any long-term health risks that might arise from taking it such a rushed product.”
Zachary Perdue, a Bradford, Ont. resident, feels it should be up to each individual whether they get a COVID-19 shot, and people shouldn’t be judged for their decisions.
“The talk of vaccine passports to simply access gyms and restaurants is absolute insanity and complete violation of human rights,” Perdue wrote.
Generally, legal experts say businesses can turn away whoever they like, providing it isn’t discriminatory under human rights statutes, but this could vary by province.
“Like any medical procedure/drug, Canadians have the right to choose,” Perdue continued. “We give consent as to what penetrates our bodies and what does not, and we have the right to medical privacy.”
Edited by CTVNews.ca producers Sonja Puzic and Ryan Flanagan