In the year since he was partially paralyzed, Ross Whiteman has kept his focus on small victories — from climbing stairs unaided, to going for a solo walk near his country house in British Columbia.
But the biggest win came in the form of an email from Canada’s Vaccine Infection Support Program (VISP) that confirmed something he says he’s known all along: that his condition was most likely caused by the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
“It was totally justified,” Whiteman said from his Lake Country home in the Okanagan Valley. “To have it on hand, in paper, and admit it is an acquittal.”
Wightman was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare condition that affects the nervous system, just days after his first and only dose of the vaccine. This condition can cause paralysis, muscle weakness, and even death.
“Every day is like a grind,” said Whiteman, who still has great difficulty moving in his arms and legs. “[The letter] It doesn’t change my condition, or the way I feel overly — it’s good to have that.”
A diagnosis of GBS after a COVID-19 vaccination is extremely rare — about one in 700,000 — according to data from the BCCDC Center for Disease Control (BCCDC) and Health Canada.
There have been 10 reports of individuals hospitalized with GBS within 30 days of a COVID-19 vaccine since December 2020, all of whom have been discharged, according to the BCCDC. Four reports followed the AstraZeneca vaccine, five followed Pfizer-BioNTech Comirnaty, and one followed Moderna Spikevax.
More than 11.7 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in British Columbia, with health experts citing the risks associated with coronavirus infection far outweigh those of vaccination. There have been more than 41,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 in Canada.
The letter Wightman received makes him one of a handful of Canadians to have been approved for COVID-19 vaccination benefits. He chose not to share his total benefits with CBC News citing privacy concerns, but said the maximum payment under the program is about $284,000. Whiteman said he is not eligible for the full amount.
He also qualifies for income replacement up to $90,000 annually, he said.
CBC News has reached out to Health Canada to clarify the program’s payment structure. Its latest data indicates that fewer than five people have been approved in favor of infection, with numbers updated Wednesday.
“I’m not overly excited”
Whiteman, who worked as a pilot and real estate agent before his diagnosis, spent the past year unable to work. He can’t travel far on his own. But the hardest thing is sitting on the sidelines, unable to do physical activities with his children, he says.
He said, “I play soccer with the kids in the yard. I mean big at baseball, and one of my favorite things is just playing soccer in the yard, and I can’t do that. It’s hard.”
Although he agreed to pay compensation for the vaccine injuries, he still believes it is out of proportion to the physical, emotional and financial losses he has incurred over the past year.
“I don’t know what number I can say this is enough, but [the payout] He said, “It’s not something I’m overly excited about. Income replacement isn’t going to be what we’re used to…so that’s a bit disappointing for me.”
Wightman says that a number of his symptoms, including loss of feeling in his feet and impaired vision, were not included in the injury benefits assessment, so he plans to file an appeal with the program’s medical review board. He says he is also seeking legal advice.
“If the lump-sum is huge, maybe income substitution is something we can achieve, but the way things have been presented so far, we haven’t decided that yet,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Canada was the only G7 country that did not have a vaccine injury compensation program.
Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an internal medicine physician at Ottawa Hospital who was consulted as an expert on the program, said the country’s comprehensive coronavirus immunization plan spurred the development of the VISP. Wilson is also the CEO of CANImmunize, the tech company behind the namesake digital vaccine tracking platform, and an expert on vaccine frequency.
“People have told us that you need to be vaccinated, and in many cases the mandates have been issued,” he said. “We needed to delay our end of the deal, and that was to make sure these individuals were treated fairly if something untoward happened.
“I am a firm believer in the safety of vaccines. They are going through a rigorous three-phase trial, but rare events can happen, and in such circumstances, these individuals need support,” he added.
Wilson notes that the risks of contracting COVID-19 far outweigh the risks of adverse reactions to vaccines. AstraZeneca vaccine has been largely phased out in Canada after blood clots developed in recipients at a rate of 1 in 100,000.
Wilson said there were challenges early in the program’s development to determine what should be considered a serious disease associated with a vaccine. GBS was among the disorders discussed, since it comes with severe health challenges that can often be overcome after a number of years.
“I am encouraged to see that condition has been compensated for, because they have erred on the side of the liberal interpretation of grave and lasting harm,” he said.
As for whether or not beneficiaries will be happy with the estimated payments from the program, Wilson said they can exercise their right of appeal, noting that VISP is still in its early stages.
“It is likely that there will be a lot of adjustments that have been made based on the experiences of the initial claims.”