Alberta has stopped administering first doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
In a statement Tuesday, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said since there are no known future shipments of AstraZeneca at this time, a determination was made to utilize the remaining supply as second doses.
“Unlike with AstraZeneca, Alberta is receiving the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in large and consistent shipments,” McMillan said. “More than 236,000 doses are arriving this week alone.”
“Alberta has administered approximately 255,000 first doses of AstraZeneca and 2,200 second doses. The remaining supply of about 8,400 doses will be used as second doses.”
What about mixing doses?
Will Albertans who had a first dose of AstraZeneca be able to get their second COVID-19 shot with another vaccine?
“I know there are some questions about whether Albertans who have received a first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine will be able to receive an mRNA vaccine for their second dose,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday.
“No decisions have been made at this time.”
Hinshaw said officials are watching new evidence from clinical trials closely, and reminded Albertans the waiting period between first and second doses of AstraZeneca is 12 to 16 weeks.
She said the results of a UK study into mixing vaccines are expected by the end of May. Hinshaw also said a longer interval between first and second doses of AstraZeneca gives the best protection.
When asked if Alberta “regrets” not holding onto more doses of vaccine for the thousands of people soon to be eligible for their second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Premier Jason Kenney said this isn’t the first time the province has had to push forward in the immunization plan amid supply uncertainty.
“In terms of holding doses back, I’ll remind you that our main source of AstraZeneca has been India, and of course they got hit hard by this massive spike (in cases) starting about two to three weeks ago, which caused them to put a hold on all export shipments,” he said.
“So, we didn’t see that coming, but we’ve been contending with the problem of unreliable supply driven by vaccine nationalism with all three – Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca. So I think we made the right decision strategically to go long on first doses to get broader population coverage.”
Hinshaw said the earliest date people will be eligible for their second AstraZeneca dose is June 3, and with results from U.K. trials on mixing different vaccine types expected at the end of May, Alberta is “very well-positioned to have maximal benefit from the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
Use of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been under added scrutiny in recent weeks, particularly after Canada’s panel of vaccine experts recommended that people who aren’t at a high risk of COVID-19 may want to wait to get a dose of BioNTech or Moderna.
When asked if the move was at least in part due to concerns over rare blood clots linked to AstraZeneca, McMillan replied the decision was “based on the fact that we are receiving no known future shipments of AstraZeneca at this time but are receiving large quantities of mRNA vaccines.”
“We will continue to monitor the emerging research, and keep Albertans informed in the weeks ahead,” McMillan added, saying the province will continue to adapt depending on supply and emerging research.
Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta and infectious disease physician, told Global News he isn’t privy to the vaccine supply or the rollout plan, but it sounds like a good response to a logistical challenge.
“It makes sense that if they’re not able to assure a second dose that they would stop providing a first dose,” Schwartz said.
He said clinical trials are currently underway looking at what happens when you mix and match doses from different providers, and it’s not known how effective it would be for someone who got AstraZeneca for their first dose to have their second dose come from a different provider.
“We are in an evidence-free zone. There is no data to guide us in this type of a scenario.
Global News has confirmed the first Canadian clinical trial which will mix and match COVID-19 vaccine doses has been approved by Health Canada, and will get underway at the Canadian Immunization Research Network in Halifax, N.S.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to think that it would be unsafe to have a different vaccine the second time,” he added. “We’re obviously not recommending it because we don’t have any data to support it, but I don’t think people need to feel anxious that that’s an unsafe thing to do.”
Schwartz suggested if there is an abundance of mRNA vaccines available, the government could essentially “start over the schedule.”
“So (Albertans) would receive two mRNA vaccines — as opposed to the one (more) to complete the two-dose schedule,” he explained.
“Now if we do have to start again from scratch, at least those people would have had some partial immunity from the beginning, but that needs to be balanced with an alternative strategy which would be to make sure that everybody got two vaccines initially with the same vaccine platform.
“We’re in an unprecedented situation and I don’t think anybody knows what is the right way to do things and we have to give the Ministry of Health the benefit of the doubt that they’re trying to get as many vaccines in arms as quickly as possible.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stressed Tuesday morning that every single vaccine that is delivered in Canada has been determined to be safe and effective by Health Canada.
“What we are encouraging Canadians to do is to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, sign up for that first dose and take whatever vaccine is offered to you,” he said.
“We know that we are receiving far more mRNA vaccines than we are of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson for now but we will continue to monitor. Quite frankly, provinces will continue to make determinations about the exact details of their vaccine rollout.
“From the federal government’s perspective, our job is to make sure that we get the largest number of safe vaccines into Canada as quickly as possible.”
Alberta sets immunization record
Kenney said it’s expected more than 270,000 doses of vaccine will be administered in the next seven days. Alberta recorded an immunization record on May 6, with 59,492 doses of vaccine going into arms in just one day.
By Wednesday, Kenney said two million COVID-19 shots will have been given to Albertans, calling it a “big milestone for our province.”
Kenney said the success of Alberta’s vaccination rollout has reduced the province’s average daily deaths from COVID-19 from 18 during the second wave, to three amid the third. He said the province has also effectively “stamped out” hospitalizations among the elderly and those identified as high-risk, thanks to immunizations.
By the first week of June, the premier said officials expect half of the Alberta population will have received at least a first dose of vaccine, and two-thirds will have that added protection by the third week of June.
Kenney said the first dose is “only half the battle,” and encouraged anyone who’s received that initial shot to “hold on a little longer” and keep following the current public health measures to protect everyone around them.
Alberta Health is working on establishing a one-stop centralized vaccine booking system that allows people to easily book at AHS sites, pharmacies or doctors’ offices, which the premier expects will launch next month. Clinics may also be set up at Alberta schools, Kenney said, for administering shots to those 12 and older.
Speaking to Global News Morning Calgary on Tuesday, Sarah Mackey from Vax Hunters Alberta said she wasn’t surprised by the decision.
“We knew that the AstraZeneca supply was a little more up in the air — we weren’t sure what that was going to look like — and because the Pfizer doses are coming in now so steadily, it makes sense to shift that to our primary option,” Mackey said.
“There’s been such mixed messages around AstraZeneca. I think a lot of people are saying, ‘Well, why did I get AstraZeneca if I could have waited a couple weeks and gotten Pfizer?’ but the people who got AstraZeneca a couple of weeks ago are the reason that we’re able to expand eligibility so quickly, because they just moved the process along so quickly using up all of our supply. That’s what we want. We want every dose to be in somebody’s arm.”
Vax Hunters Alberta is a group that helps people throughout the province track down COVID-19 vaccine appointment availabilities.
Alberta reported 1,449 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, bringing the province’s total active cases to 24,998.
A total of 705 people were being treated in hospital — a high amid the third wave — 163 of them needing ICU care.
Labs identified 256 new cases of COVID-19 variants. Variants of concern made up 38 per cent of the province’s total active cases, Alberta Health said.
Three more COVID-19 deaths were reported on Tuesday, all cases included comorbidities.
A woman in her 70s in the South zone died, and two men in their 90s died; one in the North zone and one in the Central zone.
– With files from The Canadian Press