Health Canada's chief medical adviser says her advice has not changed to go get vaccinated as soon as you can, with whatever vaccine you can.
Dr. Supriya Sharma said the risk of a new vaccine-induced blood clotting syndrome from the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot or Johnson & Johnson is extremely low, and for many Canadians, even those who might think their risk of getting COVID-19 is low, there is a big benefit to getting vaccinated as soon as they can.
"You know, what I say is that if your life is in danger, and you need to call 911, to get help to save your life, it does not matter if that call is made on an iPhone or a Samsung or even a flip phone," she said. "It does what it is supposed to do."
She said if you have access to any of the vaccine options at the same time, "absolutely there may be an advantage" to going with the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna because they don't carry any risk of blood clots.
But if you have to wait for Pfizer or Moderna and can get AstraZeneca now, getting immunized now is a good choice, she said, noting it takes at least two weeks for a vaccine's full effect to take place.
Sharma was speaking Wednesday at a briefing to announce that Health Canada has authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for kids as young as 12, effective immediately. Canada is the first in the world to do so, though the U.S. is expected to follow next week, and the United Kingdom and Europe are also reviewing the data.
The vaccine was previously authorized for anyone at least 16 years of age or older. Pfizer applied to Health Canada on April 16 to expand that to 12 to 15 years old, after a clinical trial reported the vaccine to be 100 per cent effective at preventing COVID-19 infections in that age group.
It is the first vaccine approved for children in Canada, and Sharma says it is a significant step forward in the country's fight against COVID-19.
"It will also support the return to a more normal life for our children, who have had such a hard time over the past year," she said.
Sharma said it will now be up to provinces to decide how and when to expand vaccinations to youth.
Health Canada authorizes use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children 12 to 15 years of age https://t.co/LgPQ6g6hnW— GC Newsroom (@NewsroomGC) May 5, 2021
Her advice to adults to get vaccinated with the first shot offered is the same guidance she has given from the beginning of Canada's vaccination efforts, but is not the same as that given earlier this week by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.
NACI said given the risk of blood clots from AstraZeneca and J&J, people who are at lower risk of contracting COVID-19, or low risk of severe illness from it, can choose to wait for one of the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.
Sharma did not directly comment on NACI's advice. But she said every vaccine in Canada has been authorized because they are safe and effective.
"If a vaccine is offered to you it is a good option," she said.
The risk of blood clots is real and serious but extremely rare, she said.
"We always have to weigh those risks against the risks of potentially getting COVID-19," she said. "We still say your best choice is to protect yourself by getting vaccinated. That helps protect your family, your community and helps us get to a place where we will have more control over COVID-19."
About one-fifth of all Canada's COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in children and teenagers, and while they are less likely to experience severe disease, Sharma said protecting them also protects the people around them.
She said Pfizer told Health Canada to expect an application to approve the vaccine for use on kids between five and 11 years old by September.
Health Canada says nine children under the age of 19 have died of COVID-19. Another 851 were admitted to hospital with the virus, and 145 needed critical care.
But the social isolation associated with school closures, cancelled activities, and bans on play dates with friends have led to significant increases in mental health problems in Canada's youth.
Numerous pediatricians and children's hospitals have reported higher rates of suicide attempts, depression, anxiety, and compulsive disorders in Canadian kids in the last year.
The Pfizer trial used the same size doses, and the same two-dose requirement, as the vaccine for adults.