The approval of a fourth COVID-19 vaccine and news of accelerated deliveries for another had government officials taking an optimistic tone Friday about the path of the pandemic in Canada.
“We can be really increasingly optimistic in our outlook and that is really great,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, at a news conference in Ottawa.
Her excitement grew out of news that Health Canada has now authorized the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for use here. It joins vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca among the offerings now available to Canadians.
It is the first and only vaccine Canada is buying that is a single dose, and is deemed safe and effective for all adults.
“Assessing all the data, we concluded that there was strong evidence that showed that the benefits of this vaccine outweigh the potential risks,” said Dr. Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser at Health Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also said Pfizer will ship 1.5 million more doses of its vaccine to Canada this month, and two million more in the spring. That means instead of getting 12.5 million doses from Pfizer between now and the end of June, Canada will get 15.5 million doses.
Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in total Canada now has confirmed deliveries of 36.5 million doses of vaccines by Canada Day, which would be more than enough to get a single dose to each adult Canadian by then.
That doesn’t include any of the 10 million doses purchased from Johnson & Johnson, and includes none of the 20 million doses coming directly from AstraZeneca. Anand says some of those are to be delivered in the spring, and all of them by the end of September, but specific delivery dates aren’t yet firm.
After being burned by production and delivery delays last month that saw Canada’s vaccine rollout performance pale in comparison to most of its allies, the Liberals are reluctant to adjust their formal timeline of getting every Canadian the chance to be inoculated by the end of September.
“What we are hearing today is important news, but we need to ensure that those delivery schedules are firm before we can discuss changing that timeline,” said Anand.
Still Tam said with most Canadians now likely to be vaccinated earlier than expected, at least with first doses, this winter should be the end of the worst the pandemic will offer.
“I think my optimism is that this following fall is going to look quite different to the preceding one,” said Tam.
While every vaccine except Johnson & Johnson’s is given in two doses, every province is moving to implement new guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization that those doses should be spaced out up to four months, rather than three or four weeks.
That is being done to get more people vaccinated with a first dose, after real-world evidence showed strong data that one dose is highly effective on its own.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a modified common-cold virus to carry a piece of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 to convince the body to mount an immune response to prevent future COVID-19 infections.
Clinical trials found it to be 66 per cent effective against moderate illness from COVID-19, 85 per cent effective against severe illness, and 100 per cent effective against death.
Sharma stressed that all vaccines authorized in Canada will protect Canadians from severe illness and death, and won’t be effective at all if Canadians don’t get them.
“Our advice to Canadians is to get whichever vaccine is available to you,” she said. “It’s that simple. The longer you wait to get vaccinated, the longer the time goes by that you are not protected.”
Dr. Ebele Ola, vice-president of medical affairs for Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical arm, Janssen, said data showed the vaccine to be effective against the viral variants of concern that appear to be more contagious.
Ola said the vaccine was tested in the United States, South America and South Africa, and it was extremely effective at preventing severe illness in places the variants were common.
She echoed Sharma’s call for Canadians not to hold out for a specific vaccine, but rather to marvel in the “remarkable” achievement of so many effective vaccines being available.
“The best vaccine is the one that is offered,” said Ola.
Nearly 1.7 million Canadians have now been vaccinated with at least one dose, and the pace of vaccinations has quickened in the last two weeks. In the last seven days, more than 457,000 people were vaccinated, 2 1/2 times as many as in a similar period two weeks before.
While all Canadian adults can now expect their turns to get vaccines will come in the next few months, children are going to wait a lot longer.
Sharma said clinical trials are underway to see if any or all of the approved vaccines are safe and effective for children. Data for teenagers is going to come first, followed by that for children under 12.
“Potentially, by the end of the calendar year, we might have some answers for children,” she said.
There remains only one more vaccine currently under review by Health Canada, called Novavax, but it is still completing its clinical trials, and doesn’t expect data any earlier than late March.