Infectious disease experts say Albertans should be aware that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 could become a frequent occurrence, though the timing of those additional doses is still unclear.
Albertans 12 and over are now eligible to book their vaccine appointments, and chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw indicated last week that the interval between doses could be shortened as vaccine supply increases, but don’t expect those to be the last vaccines you get to protect yourself against COVID-19.
Dr. Chris Mody, head of the University of Calgary department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases, said much of that depends on variants.
The B117 strain is now the dominant strain in Alberta, and, as of Monday, variants make up at least 42 per cent of active cases.
The province is no longer testing every positive sample for a variant of concern, instead targeting screening in populations at risk, so it is difficult to get an accurate reading of the variant situation in Alberta.
Mody said an emerging variant could mean a second generation vaccine is needed.
“We need to keep track of those variants very carefully, monitor them at a laboratory level — whether or not the antibodies of people actually cover each variant as it emerges and then when there’s not, quickly move to the development of vaccines to cover those variants,” he said.
However, Mody said it isn’t clear if the process will be annual, like it is with influenza, or perhaps more or less frequent.
“In COVID-19, we need to be much more nimble and be able to provide those vaccines as soon as the variants emerge that are not covered by antibodies.
“That might occur a year, that might occur in three years or five years but it also might occur in six months,” he said.
Mody said viruses are resilient but he is hopeful vaccine development will be able to keep up with the speed of new variants.
“We don’t know for sure that a variant could emerge that would be both more transmissible and also avoid the immunity that’s generated by current vaccines,” he said.
“The advantage that we have is we know the vaccines work so really developing a second generation vaccine, one would anticipate would be even quicker than the phenomenally quick development of the first generation of vaccines.”
Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease professor at the University of Alberta, said it is likely Albertans will require “regular boosting” with additional vaccines.
“Part of it depends on what’s happening elsewhere in the world – if we’re in a situation where the virus has been contained and eliminated, we may not need a booster as urgently,” he said.
However, vaccination rollout has been inconsistent around the world and Schwartz said that could lend itself to the possibility of new variants emerging.
“In order to account for some of those mutations, some of those variants, we may need to have additional modifications to vaccines,” he said.
“We may also need an additional vaccine even without modifications to boost the immune system. That we just don’t know yet. That’s going to be based on long-term follow-up.”
Schwartz said there will be pressure on the virus to mutate as more people get vaccinated, though he said that viral transmission can further be extinguished by continuing with measures such as distancing and masking.
However, he said that there will likely always be a different hot spot somewhere in the world.
“It’s not like we’re going to be looking in the rear-view mirror a year from now and saying, ‘Remember the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020?’
“It’s going to be an ongoing challenge but hopefully it will have much diminished influence on our lives,” Schwartz said.
“I think it’s likely going to take a very long time to get back to normal, if it ever does.”