With new coronavirus variants gaining a foothold in Canada, the percentage of vaccinated Canadians required to achieve herd immunity is increasing, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser said on Monday.
That’s because the B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in the U.K., and the B.1.351 variant, first discovered in South Africa, are believed to be more infectious than the original strain.
As the virus gets better at spreading, our vaccination rates will have to be even higher to make sure those who can’t get a jab can still be kept safe, Dr. Supriya Sharma told the House of Commons health committee on Monday.
“Herd immunity is the number of people that need to have immunity to protect people that are within the herd that do not have immunity…when we were first looking at (COVID-19), I think we were looking at estimates of around 60 to 70 per cent that we would require being vaccinated (to achieve herd immunity),” Sharma explained.
“Now with the emergence of variants and because they are more transmissible, I think a lot of people are adjusting those numbers up, towards more like 85 per cent, or even potentially 90 per cent coverage to achieve herd immunity.”
She explained that’s a “moving target” because the virus, and its contagiousness, “is changing.”
Canada has so far logged 700 cases with “variants of concern,” predominately the one that first emerged in the U.K. The variant has been identified in all 10 provinces, and at least five provinces have also reported evidence of community spread.
Meanwhile, Canada has been plugging away at its vaccination efforts — though it hasn’t been without its share of hurdles.
It might be difficult for Canada to achieve these vaccination rates, at least as vaccine approvals stand today. Pfizer’s vaccine is currently not approved for use in those under the age of 16, and Moderna’s vaccine is only approved for use on adults aged 18 and up.
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Those under the age of 16 represent just shy of 17 per cent of Canada’s population. Add onto that vaccine delays and Canadians who feel hesitant about getting the vaccine, and there’s a bumpy road ahead when it comes to achieving the high percentage of vaccination required to achieve herd immunity.
Trials are underway, however, to determine whether the vaccines will be approved for use in kids, which would help Canada to bolster its numbers as the vaccine-eligible herd gets their jabs.
Canada faced delays in the deliveries of both approved vaccines — Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — in early February. Pfizer’s delays were caused by the company’s efforts to expand its manufacturing facilities, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday that the government’s vaccination efforts are now in the “ramp-up phase.”
“Hundreds of thousands of doses arriving each week means hundreds of thousands more people protected from COVID-19,” Trudeau said.
Canada’s vaccination efforts could see another boost with the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate, which is currently undergoing Health Canada’s regulatory review process — despite being approved in the U.K. in late December, and in Europe at the end of January.
Speaking on Monday, Sharma said the Health Canada review of the AstraZeneca submission is “ongoing” but that the regulator has gone through “the bulk of the scientific information.”
“The submission was a bit more complicated than the ones that we’ve seen with Pfizer and BioNtech because of the way that the data was collected,” Sharma explained.
“We also know that different regulators are taking different approaches to how the AstraZeneca vaccine should be used. So currently we’re still going back and forth with the company with respect to some data. We’ve just had some conversations with them today.”
Sharma added that this process is “in the final stages.” However, she made similar statements on January 29, when said that Health Canada expected a decision on the vaccine “in the coming days.”
Over three weeks later, the approval process is still ongoing.
“That end process around the product monograph, the labeling, the indications, the risk management plan and potential terms and conditions on the vaccine are still under discussion,” Sharma said on Monday.
Should the AstraZeneca vaccine be approved, Canadians can expect to see up to 20 million doses of the vaccine going into arms this year.
However, a vaccine supply table from the federal government indicates that it isn’t planning to start receiving any of these vaccines until at least April — regardless of when AstraZeneca’s candidate might be approved.
Still, Trudeau is remaining resolute in his commitment that all Canadians will be able to access a COVID-19 vaccine by September.
“I’m focused on you, your family and your community,” he said, speaking Friday. “Every Canadian who wants a vaccine will have one by the end of September.”