MONTREAL – Unknown to the public sphere only 18 months ago, Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh from CHU Sainte-Justine has established herself as one of the leading figures in the fight against COVID-19 in Quebec.
This week, she completed her four-year term as the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), a presidency that will forever be inextricably linked to the worst public health crisis of the last century.
Despite the turmoil, she says she had fun, has no regrets and leaves with her head held high.
The day after she left, The Canadian Press spoke to the woman who says she’s not sure what the future holds except that she’ll never enter politics.
Chairing the NACI is a volunteer position that usually only requires a commitment of a few hours per month. It became a full time position. If you had known four years ago what you were getting yourself into, would you still have accepted it?
Honestly, I don’t think anyone could have predicted how big this has grown. Certainly, looking back, I think it’s completely crazy, but at the same time, I think I was in a good position to do this job.
Today, at the end of my mandate, I have the feeling that I have accomplished my duty. When you have the expertise and when you have the capacity to do so, to shirk your responsibilities because they are very demanding, from my point of view, that’s a bit of cowardice. I wouldn’t have chosen him but he chose me, and I did it with conviction and energy.
And honestly, despite all the hardships and all the pressure, I still had a lot of fun. The committee is made up of experts, so talking with them was super interesting. I have found dedicated people who never waste their time. I absolutely do not regret having done so. You never know what lies ahead, but I am very proud to have held this position and to have been able to do what has been accomplished over the past few months.
Was it difficult to face a crisis in which science was evolving at full speed and sometimes contradictory opinions came from all sides?
To say no would be a blatant lie. Everyone who has had to make decisions during this pandemic has had to contend with this ever-changing knowledge and changing recommendations.
So what we, and I personally, decided to do was act transparently. We had no political stake, we were going to ignore any political pressure that might come our way. We were an independent committee, which allowed us to take that approach. We looked at the science and made decisions for the benefit of Canadians. Of course, we also worked together, because sometimes a decision that is the best from a scientific point of view could be deployed and have negative consequences from an organizational and demographic point of view.
We have also taken into account questions of acceptability and feasibility, but we have always put scientific knowledge and ethics above anything else. We have adapted.
I think it went relatively well, although some decisions sometimes got in the way, or there was a negative impact on me because I was the spokesperson for the committee. But when you look at it from a much more macroscopic perspective, I think overall we did well and the decisions that were made were the right ones. We couldn’t necessarily prove it at first, but so far the future has proven us right.
Sometimes you have had your own personal fallout, like when you said you wouldn’t recommend AstraZeneca to your sister. How do you remember this episode?
I was honestly trying to explain that one complication of AstraZeneca that could have been avoided, because you were not at risk and more vaccines were coming, was one complication too many.
I wanted to take an example that was revealing, so I took my sister because I have a sister and I love her. I could have used the sister or the wife (of the reporter I was talking to), but it might have been wrong to use an example that was not personal, so I referred to it. Would I do it differently? Yes, I could.
Later, I corrected the facts.
At the time, there was enough evidence around the world to tell us that when there is an alternative to AstraZeneca and the person is not at risk, it may be helpful to tell people that if they can get a messenger RNA in a week, wait.
If you are taking your AstraZeneca and you have a major thrombosis complication, to us that was unacceptable. And that was a very difficult message to get across because the politicians meant that all vaccines were equal, and for them the most important thing was to vaccinate as quickly as possible.
But for us, it was not at all costs.
The public didn’t know you 18 months ago. How did you deal with your sudden notoriety?
Being a public figure gives me responsibilities that I didn’t have before, so I can’t get mad at anyone in public anymore (laughs). I still have to keep some restraint. Being the spokesperson was extremely taxing, and luckily I had an affinity with the media. I think I gave a lot more than I expected, and I was doing it in addition to my full time job.
What are the useful lessons for the future of this pandemic?
We have learned that prevention is absolutely paramount, but that everything that was put in place after other public health emergencies was quickly taken away. In health in general, and in society in general, we tend to ignore prevention because we have the impression that it is expensive and we never know when it will pay off.
And it’s true, you never know when it’s going to pay off.
But when a pandemic strikes and we’re ready, the network is ready, the staff are trained, we do a lot better.
We saw this time that the reserves of personal protective equipment had not been renewed, whereas after the pandemic of (H1N1 avian influenza in) 2009, we had these reserves, but they had not been renewed because the previous government said they were unnecessary.
Each time we say that we will learn from this crisis, and that each time we throw away everything we have prepared because we say to ourselves that it will not necessarily be reusable, but can we have a ” playbook âwhich says that when there is such and such a signal, here is the sequence of things to put in place, here is what we remove, here are the environments we need to protect and how.
We did the work in 2009, we did the work in 2014 for Ebola, and in most contexts we were forced to redo the work in 2020. For me, that’s one of the lessons we don’t. should not forget this time.
What does the future hold for you? Will you continue to get involved publicly or are your functions at Sainte-Justine and the University of Montreal more than enough?
I do not know. Generally speaking, I don’t have a pre-established career plan. I am waiting to see what opportunities are available to me. I’m never closed, and sometimes the opportunities have nothing to do with what I’m doing now, but I’m always open to interesting projects or collaborations.
At the media level, I will continue where I am needed, I will perhaps be a little less present because in theory, the pandemic should eventually stop (laughs).
I will continue in my current positions, but for the rest, we will see. I won’t take the first thing that happens because I need a break, but we’ll see what the future holds.
Are you opening the door to a political career?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I’m not cut out for politics. I have too much integrity and I don’t like being stuck in a corner when someone wants me to say something I don’t want to say.
Politics, when you get into it, you often want to stay there, there is a power that goes with it that doesn’t suit me. I’ve never been approached, but with everything I’ve said, I don’t think anyone would approach me (laughs).