On Wednesday, Health Canada approved the Pfizer vaccine after completing its review of the U.S. drugmaker’s clinical data, deeming the vaccine safe for use. The news comes two days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canadians could start receiving the Pfizer doses as soon as next week.
While welcoming the news, experts and public health officials cautioned that a return to normalcy will not be immediate.
“We can’t expect to see the vaccine make any significant inroads in transmission until a majority of the population receives the vaccine,” Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News.
“We should not be thinking that it’s time to take off masks and that normal life will resume any time soon.”
Dr. Barry Pakes, a public health physician and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, agreed.
“For the foreseeable future, we’re going to be doing the same sort of masking, distancing, minimal interaction,” he said.
Last month, Trudeau said a majority of Canadians should be vaccinated against the coronavirus by next September. That means roughly 75 million doses for the country’s entire population if two shots are given per person.
Furness said at least three-quarters of the population will need to be immunized before the transmission can be reduced to less serious levels and that “could take a year or longer.”
Canada’s first doses of Pfizer’s vaccine will arrive from the company’s manufacturing plant in Belgium. In its final analysis from Phase 3 clinical trials released last month, pharmaceutical company Pfizer said its coronavirus vaccine is 95 per cent effective, with no serious side effects, and protects older adults.
In what was being hailed as a “V-Day” and closely watched around the world, the United Kingdom started injecting people across the country with Pfizer’s vaccine on Tuesday, becoming the first country to do so.
In Canada, if all goes according to plan, up to 249,000 doses from Pfizer are expected to go to priority groups this month, with Canadian hospitals among the sites doling out the vaccine to the first recipients, according to Maj. Gen. Dany Fortin, a former NATO commander leading the vaccine distribution process.
“Knowing safe and effective vaccines are within sight might lead some to think that COVID-19 is no longer a problem, but the reality is very different,” Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said during a press conference on Tuesday, stressing the need to continue following local public health guidelines.
In August, top doctors cautioned that Canada’s coronavirus restrictions could last for years even with a vaccine.
On Tuesday, Tam noted that the initial supplies will be limited and that a vaccine does not mean that “the control of COVID-19 will be quick.”
“During these initial stages of vaccine roll-out, it is crucial that we all continue with public health measures to protect ourselves and others,” she said.
‘Rapid tests, health capacity key to reopening’
Canada is in the midst of a second wave of the virus, with cases having surpassed 432,000 and at least 12,931 dead from the illness.
More recently, hospitalizations are soaring across provinces. Quebec, Ontario and Alberta are among the worst affected.
To curb the spread of the virus, provincial health authorities have advised against non-essential travel. Entry into the country remains largely restricted, except for Canadians, permanent residents and their family members.
Experts say the initial inoculation of the most vulnerable groups, in the short run, can help bring the mortality rate and hospitalizations down, easing the strain on the health-care system and, in turn, allowing societies to reopen.
“I think some of those lockdown measures over the months, rather than weeks, will be eased somewhat,” Pakes said.
But he added that we need to see hospital capacities increasing before such decisions can be made.
“Easing up other things in our society and allowing to congregate in large numbers again or opening up the borders much more freely… those are late-stage interventions that are going to be at least several months away, if not closer to the summer.”
Furness said the “fastest route” to reopening and easing of restrictions will depend on rapid testing, not on the vaccine.
“The vaccination is going to take a year or more. Rapid testing could be deployed within weeks and it could actually change the situation for restrictions within months.”