TORONTO -- Once COVID-19 vaccines are ready for the general population, a made-in-Canada app could help monitor the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines while also allowing Canadians to easily store their vaccination history on their phones.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout will be one of the largest and most complex health initiatives in Canadian history. Researchers say information on who got what vaccine and the effect they are having is critical.

Vaccine makers will likely be required to monitor for safety and effectiveness even after the vaccines have been approved by federal agencies.

But in order to collect as much all-important data as possible from Canadians who get vaccinated, scientists in Ottawa and British Columbia are turning to user-friendly digital programs and launching a pilot study that could lead to a new approach for tracking vaccine safety.

CANImmunize is a free phone app that allows individuals to store their vaccine history and keep it all in one place.  Think of it as a digital version of the old yellow vaccination cards.

Researchers are testing its use with this fall’s seasonal flu shot and seeing if surveillance reminders sent from a vaccine surveillance program from B.C. called CANVAS — the Canadian National Vaccine Safety Network — prompt responses from those vaccinated.

“This gives you the ability to actually contribute and provide us with some information about how safe these vaccines are,” said Dr. Julie Bettinger, a professor of pediatrics at BC Children’s Hospital and lead investigator at CANVAS.  “It really advances science.”

The app works by sending users a survey a few days after they’ve received a vaccine. They’ll be asked questions about their health, such as if they’ve suffered from any health problems.

The crowd-sourced approach provides public health authorities with a better understanding of how the vaccine is working any given year. Anyone who reports a new health problem then receives a follow-up phone call to learn more about their reaction.

Dr. Ellen Snyder, an Ottawa-based doctor who has downloaded the app for her own use, said the simplified monitoring solution could help doctors following new COVID-19 vaccines.

“It's going to be hard for health-care providers to keep track. I think it’s going to be really helpful to have this in this app,” she said.

Harnessing the technology could benefit both patients and doctors by logging which specific vaccine a patient has received. It’s possible that multiple different COVID-19 vaccines could eventually be available, and it will be important to stay on top of which person has what vaccine, from what batch and if people are due for a potential second dose, needed with some formulations.

And while any vaccines available to the public will have already undergone several rounds of safety testing before approval in Canada, the app could flag any unanticipated problems and identify them immediately.

For instance, if one vaccine was discovered to be not as effective as another, it would be important to notify individuals who received that vaccine, according to Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital who helped create CANImmunize.

“We hope we will be able to determine the safety of each specific vaccine and see if they're all safe or if the one of them is problem, that it'd be important to know that sooner rather than later,” he said.

In all provinces and territories, health-care providers are expected to report all adverse events to their local public health unit. On an international scale, vaccine safety is monitored by the World Health Organization’s International Drug Monitoring Program.

The difference with this app, researchers say, is that it gives Canadians an opportunity to actively contribute to the science.

“I feel really strongly that our vaccines in Canada are incredibly safe, and that people should be getting vaccinated, but I also feel like we have a strong obligation to monitor that safety and this just gives us another tool in our toolbox to really be able to do that with vaccine safety,” Bettinger said.

Researchers say they expect to have data by December on the first part of their study as they prepare to refine the app for use when COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll out.