Minister uses inaccurate vaccine efficacy statistic as critics decry partisan pandemic messaging

Minister uses inaccurate vaccine efficacy statistic as critics decry partisan pandemic messaging

The Progressive Conservatives have furthered their attacks on the federal government over the border issue, with critics charging that the governing party has lost the plot mid-pandemic in favour of partisan politics and health experts warning that the government is misrepresenting science.

The PC Party unveiled a new ad on Facebook Thursday morning, featuring airplanes as invading microbes that threaten to infect Ontario.

"Trudeau didn't close the borders when the pandemic started," the attack ad intones, although the federal government did shut down non-essential travel in March 2020, shortly after Premier Doug Ford encouraged Ontarians to go on their March Break trips as planned.

"He didn't close the borders when it got worse. No one wants a fourth wave. It's time to act."

While there's broad agreement that there are several loopholes for crossing borders at the moment, travel accounts for 1.6 per cent of Ontario's COVID-19 cases, according to Public Health Ontario data. The vast majority of transmission is coming from essential workplaces, congregate settings and other community transmission. The Ford government has declined to take up some of its science advisory table recommendations to reduce this transmission, including narrowing the list of essential workplaces, implementing 10 paid sick days. It legislated three instead, following a year of resistance to any at all, and is targeting hot spots with 50 per cent of available vaccines for two instead of four weeks.

The Ford government also loosened public health restrictions in February when experts warned that variants of concern, already present in the province, could threaten a devastating third wave. That prediction came to pass, and an April Angus Reid poll found that Ontario voters hold the PC government responsible by a two-to-one margin over the federal government.

As evidence of the potential threat posed by porous borders, Associate Minister for Red Tape Reduction Prabmeet Sarkaria inaccurately invoked a New England Journal of Medicine study. "Pfizer is potentially 30 per cent effective against the variants from the U.K., this is a study out of Qatar, so what we're asking about the federal government to do here is support us," he warned. "This is the reason that we're asking for stronger measures at our border," he added, saying that the government doesn't know the threat it faces. 

The message was repeated online by some PC MPPs but disputed by the author of the study.

But the author, Cornell University infectious disease specialist Laith Abu-Raddad, tried to correct the record, calling the 30 per cent figure as used by the minister an "understatement" in an email to Ontario physician Mario Elia.

Specifically, the study was not designed to evaluate first dose efficacy, as it included recipients who contracted COVID-19 before 14 days after taking it, when the Pfizer antibodies take effect, and likely those who were infected before receiving the shot, according to Abu-Raddad. He also said it was "inaccurate" to conclude the study means the four-month delay in administering second shots puts people at risk. The Ontario government decided to implement the delayed dose strategy on the advice of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and can change it for some or all of the population, if it chooses.

The vast majority of the positive cases for first dose recipients noted in the study occurred in the window before the first dose took full effect, according to Ontario Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer, who emphasized the effectiveness of the vaccine. Public Health Ontario data released yesterday found first dose Pfizer efficacy after 14 days was 66 per cent.

The minister's office did not immediately respond on whether he would like to withdraw or clarify his remarks.

"Why are we talking about this as though it's the truth?" said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joe's in Hamilton. Chagla's back-of-the-envelope math found that first dose efficacy after 14 days would be closer to 78 per cent, based on the data provided in the study.

"You have to understand the data you're talking about," he advised. "You have to be careful about how you communicate.... This should not be on the agenda for border control," he said of the connection to political arguments.

The opposition hammered the government for its focus on the border, which comprised nearly all of the PC-friendly questions in question period.

One of those questions attacked Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who is currently leading the polls, for saying that this concern comes from a xenophobic place.

Liberal MPP John Fraser made clear that the party stands by its criticism. "It's a dog whistle," he scorned. "It's meant to divide. It's meant to create fear of the other," he said of the ad.

"It's one thing to create fear or distrust in a political opponent," he said, acknowledging the role of partisan ads. "It's another thing to do that with people. And that's what's so wrong with it. It's just not the time. But there's 860 people in ICU. People are really scared. Don't scare them. Just provide the solutions that they need."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it was irresponsible of the minister to cite the Qatar study the way he did. "For the minister to stand at a podium and claim these concerns ... as if it was kind of well-known knowledge, and that it was legitimate, [but] this was an issue that's really highly irresponsible, and what it does is lead to more vaccine hesitancy and more vaccine shopping, that's the last thing we need in Ontario." 

David Hains

QP Briefing Reporter

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