Travel Vaccine Mandate Policy-Maker Testifies Being Unqualified to Assess Underlying Data

Travel Vaccine Mandate Policy-Maker Testifies Being Unqualified to Assess Underlying Data
People wait in line to check in at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on May 12, 2022. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
Noé Chartier

The Transport Canada official who drafted the policy for mandatory vaccination in travel has no scientific background and says she relied uncritically on public health information, yet court documents show she still dismissed or interpreted data.

“It’s not my responsibility to question or analyze the data that the experts on public health in this country provide me,” said Jennifer Little, director general of the COVID Recovery Team at Transport Canada.

Little submitted an affidavit in April and was cross-examined in June as part of the government’s defence against four lawsuits challenging the travel mandate. The mandate was suspended by the Liberals on June 20, but they warned it could be brought back depending on circumstances.

Little's cross-examination reveals she did question data, having put aside information or interpreted it to support the vaccine mandate.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has a team that reviews essentially all the new scientific literature on COVID-19. It reviewed the issue of in-flight transmission of the virus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID, and produced a first report with information dated up to May 2021.

Little chose to not take this summary of evidence into consideration after the order came in late July to start drafting policy recommendations.

“In my view this document was not specifically relevant to [a] vaccination mandate because it did not provide current data in the context of the higher transmissibility of the Delta VOC [variant of concern],” she wrote in her affidavit.

“What qualifies you to make that judgment call?” asked lawyer Sam Presvelos during cross-examination.

Little said the data seemed too old and not useful to support her policy development.

“So you made that judgment call about whether or not this might be relevant despite the fact that you don't know and you're not trained to know how similar the different variants of SARS-CoV-2 are and whether or not the mechanisms of transmission of different variants might be relevant to understand subsequent variants, right?” said Presvelos.

“As I mentioned, I'm not a scientist,” said Little, to which Presvelos replied, “I know.”

Little has a B.A. in English and she said to her knowledge, no one on her team of under 20 people has a scientific background.

The latest version of the PHAC report is called “Evidence on the risk of COVID-19 transmission in flight: update 3,” published in November 2021.

The version with information up to May 2021 was not readily available, but the latest one states that “across reviews, the risk of infection during a flight is low.”

In defending the mandate, Little also mentioned COVID-19 testing conducted at the border.

“There was considerable testing evidence ... that showed that vaccination would be effective in preventing the spread on aircraft,” she said, referring to the PHAC document “Counts of cases and travellers using ALL TESTS for ALL countries.”

“We were very confident that [a] vaccination mandate would protect the safety of Canadians and other travellers on the Canadian transportation system.”

The PHAC document shows higher positivity rates for unvaccinated travellers, relates Little’s affidavit, but does not address when the infection might have occurred nor if it was linked to in-flight transmission.

Some scientific literature published in the summer of 2021 suggested that infected individuals, whether vaccinated or not, carry the same amount of viral load.

'Sound' Rationale

While saying the mandate policy was supported by PHAC information, Little testified that she couldn't recall whether PHAC or its parent department Health Canada made a recommendation for a travel vaccine mandate.

She did write in her affidavit that PHAC believed there was a "sound" rationale for vaccination, without a mention of mandates.

On Oct. 18, 2021, a few days before the vaccine mandates came into force, Transport Canada associate assistant deputy minister Aaron McCrorie wrote to a high-level manager at PHAC to obtain updated COVID-19 data related to the transportation sector.

Dawn Lumley-Myllari, director general of the Strategic Policy Branch of PHAC, wrote back on Oct. 28 that “the public health rationale for vaccination remains sound.”

This was apparently taken as confirmation that a vaccine requirement should be imposed in transportation.

“The fact that PHAC deemed the public health rationale for vaccination sound was an important underpinning of the mandate, phase one of which came into effect two days later,” Little wrote.

The court documents do not say whether Lumley-Myllari thought mandatory vaccination for travelling was “sound.”

Little's affidavit does state that Lumley-Myllari was the “focal point for coordinating PHAC’s public health rationale supporting the government-wide vaccination policy development.”

PHAC’s ethical framework to deal with the pandemic does not mention mandatory vaccination, but rather principles of minimizing harm and respect of human rights.
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