New Brunswick is scheduled to receive 10,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of the month, but where they’ll go when they arrive is uncertain.
The first batch arrived in the country on Wednesday, following Health Canada approving its use on Friday.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is recommending that the vaccine be used for those under 65, due to incomplete data for seniors. New Brunswick health minister Dorothy Shephard says officials are still working to determine if that will mean changes to the vaccine rollout plan.
“As the information becomes available our staff at public health and with the vaccine roll out task force are constantly assessing. They will bring forward any suggestions of changes to the COVID cabinet committee and cabinet and we will make those decisions in due course,” Shephard said.
The new vaccine also boasts a much lower efficacy rate than its Moderna or Pfizer counterparts. Clinical trials yielded a 62-per cent efficacy rate. For Moderna that number is 94 per cent and Pfizer posted a 95 per cent rate.
But an epidemiologist at the University of British Columbia says context is important when looking at the boxcar efficacy stats.
“We need to be very careful about these numbers,” said Horacio Bach. “The data (for Pfizer and Moderna) was based only on the original strain.”
The AstraZeneca, on the other hand, was tested in South Africa after the N501Y.V2 variant had already begun circulating.
“If you had to do today, a repeat experiment, using Pfizer or Moderna in that population, more than likely you get the same numbers, because we know that the variants are escaping the immune system with the vaccines,” Bach said.
Bach said the 62-per cent efficacy rate is further misleading. Even if 38 out of every 100 people vaccinated catch the virus, the vaccine has shown a marked reduction in severe symptoms in those who do get sick.
“The data we have from studies done already with Astra-Zeneca show there is a huge reduction in the number of hospitalizations,” Bach said.
“It doesn’t mean you’re not protected, it means you will cope in a better way with the disease.”
The New Brunswick department of health says the new vaccine may be easier to deploy, as well.
“The addition of more vaccines to fight this pandemic, particularly as we aim to offer vaccines to as many people as possible in the face of new variants is welcome,” said Shawn Berry, a department spokesperson.
“In addition, different vaccines have different advantages. For example, the AstraZeneca vaccine is easier to transport and store since it only needs to be kept in refrigerated conditions and does not require a deep freezer.”
The AstraZeneca vaccine also requires two shots, but the NACI says they should be about 12 weeks apart, a conversation the province is watching closely. New Brunswick previously announced it would delay the second doses for some less vulnerable groups by up to 90 days in order to spread available doses across more people.
“As you know, New Brunswick already indicated that it would move to an interval of up to 90 days for most people in order to maximize the benefits of providing the first dose. It is encouraging to see that the same discussion is now happening nationally,” Berry said.
“We will be reviewing guidance from NACI on moving to a four-month interval and the value that it would have for New Brunswick’s vaccination program.”