Over the course of the pandemic, governments, health professionals, life science companies and citizens came together in an unprecedented way to harness science and research to develop and supply highly effective COVID-19 vaccines to the world. In so doing, millions of lives were saved, economies re-opened, and society returned to a near pre-pandemic level of functionality.
At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, there was global recognition that vaccines would ultimately be needed for the economy and society to re-open. In terms of vaccines, even the most optimistic projections for the development of effective vaccine candidates put the timeline at 3-5 years. Thankfully, scientists and the industry were able to identify, develop, manufacture, and distribute four highly effective vaccine candidates before the end of 2020, including two ground-breaking mRNA vaccines, one of which included lipid nanoparticle technology developed by the Canadian biotech company Acuitas.
To be certain, while they were the result of over a decade of science and research, the COVID-19 vaccines were truly a scientific miracle. While their arrival may have been sooner than expected, that science was able to deliver safe and effective vaccines should not be a surprise. Ever since the discovery in the late 1700s of a vaccine for smallpox, vaccines have been instrumental in not only limiting some health challenges but virtually eliminating some. Today, there are a range of vaccines to protect against 14 diseases which have turned what were once deadly viruses and infections including smallpox, chickenpox, polio, and hepatitis into manageable health issues.
Despite a well-documented history of success, there remains a societal hurdle as anti-vaccine voices have served to undermine the public’s confidence. The negative voices were present pre-COVID, but the polarization of the pandemic served only to augment them and their followers. While most Canadians embraced the available COVID-19 vaccines, too many Canadians opted to ignore science. While Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and local public health units have taken steps to combat vaccine misinformation, communicating during times of uncertainty is challenging. This is a troubling trend for a technology which relies on community uptake for maximum effectiveness.
Significant effort is now needed to regain lost ground. Indeed, there has been a revival of sorts of several diseases which vaccines had for the most part relegated to the rare or eradicated file. Shockingly, polio, has staged a comeback over recent years as immunization rates dropped globally. Accordingly, public health units across the country continue to express concern regarding the decline in school-based immunization coverage. Support and awareness for parents and caregivers is needed to increase health literacy on school-based immunization – how to access, when to access, and how to report vaccination status with local public health units.
This week, the Canadian Public Health Association is convening public health leaders, researchers, and educators in Ottawa- to help recapture the momentum lost on vaccines and immunization. Their leadership is very welcome and timely. While there may now be some light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, it is very clear we must prepare for the possibility of a COVID-30 or 40, or some other type of virus, or health challenge. There is no doubt vaccines will again be relied on to prevent or solve for the challenge. Accordingly, scientists, researchers, industry, public health officials, governments, and health partners need to work together to counter misinformation, and provide better vaccine access for eligible children, youth, and adults.
Andrew Casey is President & CEO, BIOTECanada- the national voice of Canada’s biotechnology ecosystem.