O'Toole suggests lack of Liberal transparency feeding problem of vaccine misinformation
OTTAWA -- As federal public health officials plot out how to tackle COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is suggesting the lack of Liberal transparency is feeding into some Canadians’ anxieties about being immunized against the novel coronavirus.
During a press conference on Parliament Hill in which he called for more answers from the federal government, O’Toole said the long list of outstanding questions and uncertainties surrounding Canada’s vaccine plan aren’t helping counter those who are casting doubt on the science behind the shot.
“A plan will actually help provide details and help educate Canadians on the research and approvals of vaccines,” O’Toole said “This is why information is a tool just as important as rapid tests and vaccines. Canadians are already worried… we're hearing through emails, through petitions from thousands of Canadians who have questions,” he said.
One such petition is being sponsored by Conservative MP Derek Sloan. It falsely claims the vaccines are “not designed to prevent infection or transmission” and are “effectively human experimentation.”
It also calls for the government to ensure that eventual COVID-19 vaccines will be voluntary, despite numerous health and government officials already saying that’s the case.
While putting forward a House of Commons e-petition is not an indication that the backer is a proponent of what the petition states, Sloan told reporters on Wednesday that he thinks there are “some good points” in it, but largely his approach to e-petitions is to give Canadians “a voice.”
The petition has generated more than 24,000 signatures.
Asked about the petition, O’Toole wouldn’t comment directly but said “more important than petitions sent in from Canadians across the country, is a plan.”
“You wonder why Canadians are worried? It's the secrecy and incompetence of the Trudeau government,” he said.
“The fact is that we've got 30,000 to 50,000 people that have been tested in some of these trials… There's really no grounds here to be calling these vaccines, you know, too rushed and potentially unsafe. It just flies in the face of the facts that we've seen,” said CTV Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy on CTV’s Power Play.
PUBLIC HEALTH PLANS TO COMBAT
Vaccine skeptics and those who are outright anti-vaccination have already been voicing concerns—largely online—about eventual COVID-19 vaccines, without evidence to back up their claims. Often these conspiracy theories are promoted by those who doubt the severity of the virus and protest mask mandates.
This has prompted some social media companies to commit to eliminating false and misleading content on the topic.
“Certainly we want as many people to get the vaccine as possible, both to protect themselves and others, and so any amount of misinformation is going to be harmful to that effort and just make everyone's lives more complicated,” said Barry Pakes, of the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health in an interview with CTV News.
“There's a lot of work, challenging work to roll out the logistics of this program, and if some of the people who would otherwise be involved in rolling it out, have to also be involved in countering all kinds of misinformation, that's just not helpful.”
Pakes said that he doesn’t have any concerns about the safety of vaccines, but can see how people can have reservations.
“More than ever once you get into that rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, it's very hard to get out… I don't fault people for falling into those holes a little bit and then just getting deeper and deeper. We all have to do our part in making sure people who do have those views are, brought in with kindness, and with compassion, and with information, and are not vilified,” said Pakes.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Wednesday at the 2020 Canadian Immunization Conference that the Public Health Agency of Canada is working on increasing communications to Canadians so they have the information they need about vaccine safety, in an effort to combat misinformation.
This will include developing a webinar series launching soon, to provide information.
“Vaccine hesitancy is a concern. Since the vaccines will be new and expedited approvals may create a false belief that a vaccine was not properly evaluated or is unsafe,” Tam said, citing recent polling that showed upwards of 40 per cent of respondents indicating they would wait to get a vaccine until they had more information about it.
“Because of the social media and the internet age, we've got even more of a challenge than anyone else… It is a significant aspect of the response that we have to deal with,” Tam said.
She said that as the rollout begins in earnest transparency will be key, from how effective the vaccines are and how long immunity lasts, to any adverse side effects that could be expected.
“We haven't seen the data yet, we haven't heard of any serious adverse events during these clinical trials, but I think transparency on that front will also go along with increasing public confidence,” said Tam.
The federal government is aware of this additional layer of challenge they are facing in convincing people to line up and get immunized when it’s their turn, and in recent days ministers have spoken out about what they view as misinformation they feel is being perpetuated by the opposition in their questioning of the government.
Earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland accused O’Toole of twisting her words, “something which is becoming a bad habit of his,” she said.
Though, the Liberals have been reluctant to shed more light on key aspects of the vaccine plan that other countries have shared in great detail with their citizens.