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Ottawa injects another $36M into vaccine injury compensation fund

OTTAWA — The federal government has added $36.4 million to a program designed to support people who have been seriously injured or killed by vaccines since the end of 2020.

The program was announced shortly after COVID-19 shots first became available to the public, and provides financial compensation to people who were adversely affected by Health Canada-approved vaccines.

The Liberals earmarked $75 million for the first five years of the program. To date, a private firm called Oxaro has received $56.2 million from Ottawa to run the program and pay out valid claims that originate outside of Quebec.

As of December, the firm had paid $11.2 million in compensation.

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Quebec has had its own vaccine injury compensation program since 1985, and received $7.75 million when the federal program launched.

The Liberal government set aside another $36 million for Oxaro and Quebec to cover the next two years of the program as part of the federal budget tabled in the House of Commons last week.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says it contracted the work to Oxaro to ensure the impartiality of the claims process.

"Oxaro operates independently and at arm's-length from PHAC," the agency said in a statement. "This means that PHAC has no involvement in program delivery, including assessment of claims or appeals of claims."

The cost of the program is dependent on how many people apply for compensation, the agency said.

The distance between the government and the claims process is important, said Dr. Kumanan Wilson, who was vocal in advocating for a vaccine injury program during the pandemic.

"We don't want the same people potentially advocating for vaccines and working to get higher coverage to be adjudicating these," said Wilson, a researcher at Bruyère Research Institute in Ottawa.

There were several reasons he advocated for the program, but it became an important part of the social contract during the pandemic, he said.

"There was likely going to be some requirement of vaccination, as there turned out to be, and you were basically asking people to partake in a public good," he said.

"If they were to partake in a public good and they were hurt in the process, there would be a need for just compensation."

Though adverse effects associated with the COVID-19 vaccine are rare, there were instances of blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine and cases of inflammation around the heart muscle connected to the Moderna shot.

As of December, Oxaro has received 2,233 claims and approved 138 of them.

The available statistics do not specify which vaccines were involved.

But there are likely ways to make the program more cost efficient, Wilson said. One of the things he advocated for early on was to streamline similar claims where a causal link between a vaccine and serious injuries is well established, a process already used in the United States.

The same is possible for claims where a risk of injury has been debunked, such as the refuted link between autism and the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine, he added.

"This could reduce some of the administrative burden."

The program was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, but covers injuries and deaths associated with vaccines approved for any illness, as long as they were administered after Dec. 8, 2020.

At the time, the department underscored that a serious adverse reaction to a vaccine is extremely rare — affecting less than one in a million people — but that the government has a duty to help if a reaction does happen.

A little less than a year later, Ottawa made it mandatory to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to travel by plane or train, or to work in the federal public service.

To be eligible for compensation, the patient or their beneficiary must be able to prove they suffered a severe, life-threatening or life-altering injury that resulted in a persistent or significant disability, incapacity, a birth defect or death.

More than 105 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered since Dec. 14, 2020, and 0.01 per cent led to serious adverse effects, Health Canada data show.

Of the 488 deaths reported after people were vaccinated for COVID-19, four were directly linked to the shot, the most recent Health Canada report indicates.

Quebec saw an uptick in claims to its vaccine injury compensation program during the pandemic, from one claim in 2020 to 98 in both 2021 and 2022.

Only three of those cases had been approved for compensation as of March 2023.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 24, 2024.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press