COVID-19 exists, it kills and affects people in multiple ways, and it can be almost totally prevented by using vaccines and following public health measures.
Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 first appeared in late 2019, the world has been transformed by the pandemic it has caused and the extensive measures introduced to try to control it. During that period, our understanding of COVID-19 has evolved significantly based on new research and vaccines that have been developed, which can effectively end the pandemic.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also spawned a miasma of fake news, conspiracy theories and inaccurate representations of what is really happening. People who “doomscroll” and follow the daily news about COVID-19 can easily become lost in arguments about how COVID-19 can be best diagnosed, treated or controlled.
As such, it is worth stating and reinforcing what we know to be true when it comes to COVID-19.
What do we know about COVID-19?
The first and most obvious fact is that COVID-19 and the coronavirus SARS-COV-2 that causes it does exist and has had a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of people worldwide. As of July 19, almost 189 million have been infected and almost 4 million people have died globally as a result of COVID-19. In Canada, there were just over 1.4 million people infected with SARS-COV-2 and more than 26,000 people have died because of it. Hundreds of thousands of individuals continue to suffer from the residual effects of the disease even after recovering from the acute phase of the disease (the so-called ‘Long COVID’ or ‘Long-haul COVID’).
To quote Health Canada: “COVID-19 is a serious health threat”.
The impact of COVID-19
The impact of COVID-19 has gone far beyond the huge toll it has taken on life and health.
As the World Health Organization said back in October: “The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work. The economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic is devastating: tens of millions of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty, while the number of undernourished people, currently estimated at nearly 690 million, could increase by up to 132 million by the end of the year. Millions of enterprises face an existential threat. Nearly half of the world’s 3.3 billion global workforce are at risk of losing their livelihoods.”
As the numbers above show, Canada has by no means escaped unscathed from the ravages of COVID-19 as infections have swept the country in waves. Many leading Canadian physicians and other healthcare experts have noted that the virus has revealed cracks that already existed in Canada’s Medicare system and has had a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged groups such as Indigenous peoples and racialized communities. These findings have also been supported by strong evidence looking at who has become infected and where.
Many who do not work directly in healthcare and have been spared direct contact with COVID-19 have felt and seen the impact of the pandemic through the public health measures imposed to control spread of the virus. There has been much debate about the best way to contain COVID-19 and advice given has changed over time as we gained a better understanding of the virus. Evidence shows that keeping physically distant from others, handwashing and keeping surfaces clean, and wearing some sort of face covering are all effective ways in which infection can be reduced or eliminated.
How were the COVID-19 vaccines developed so quickly?
Public health measures have been invaluable in helping us in this pandemic. But it has been the development of vaccines which hold the promise for ending it. There are very good reasons COVID-19 vaccines were developed so fast and these can be summarized as follows:
- Advances in science and technology
- The COVID-19 virus is a member of the coronavirus family researchers had been studying for several years and already had a great deal of information about. Recent improvements in the way vaccines are manufactured could also be applied to COVID-19 vaccine development.
- International Collaboration
- Sharing of data globally allowed researchers to collaborate closely on developing COVID-19 vaccines. For example, a full genetic profile of COVID-19 was completed and shared just 10 days after the first reported cases in Wuhan, China. Greater collaboration also allowed parallel avenues of research to be undertaken, again speeding the vaccine development process.
- Increased dedicated funding
- Vaccine development is an expensive process and government and national agencies provided significant funding to support COVID-19 vaccine development and associated clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. Greater funding also allowed companies to run tests of the vaccine in parallel, again speeding the vaccine development process. Increased funding also allowed for large-scale manufacturing to be undertaken while clinical trials were still in process.
what about testing the cOVID-19 vaccines?
Rigorous testing of COVID-19 vaccines demonstrated the ones approved for use in Canada were both very effective and very safe. Changing recommendations about the type and timing of the two-dose vaccines being used in Canada should not obscure these facts.
While some people report having a sore arm as a result of being vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccines, and some report headaches or other relatively minor symptoms, life-threatening adverse reactions are rare. With millions of Canadians receiving millions of doses of vaccine, it should be no surprise that there will be some serious side-effects. Similarly, as no vaccine is 100% effective there will be cases of people developing COVID-19 when fully vaccinated. These facts in no way detract from the incredible positive impact vaccination is having on controlling COVID-19.
The numbers don’t lie. Vaccines work and they are helping Canada and the rest of the world reach a stage where the pandemic will no longer dominate our lives.
About the authors
Jean Bourbeau is the Director of the Research Institute MUHC’s Center for Innovative Medicine, the COPD Clinic and the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Unit at the MUHC Montreal Chest Institute. He has been President of the Canadian Thoracic Society. His work and research on COPD, pulmonary rehabilitation, integrated self-management programs for patients with COPD (‘Living Well with COPD’) have had an impact not only in the field of research, but also in clinical practice at the national and international level.
Dr. Jean Bourbeau
MD, MSc, FRCPC
Maria Sedeno is the Executive Director of RESPIPLUS, a non-profit organization committed to improving healthcare professionals and patients’ education in the respiratory field. She has co-authored and led the national and international developments of the “Living Well with COPD” and the “Living Well with Pulmonary Fibrosis” programs. These comprehensive self-management educational platforms support patients in making the necessary changes in their lifestyle to better manage their chronic disease.