Canada isn’t ready to offer COVID-19 booster shots as there’s “not enough data” to support it quite yet, the country’s top doctor said Friday, despite countries like Israel pushing ahead with a vaccination top-up.
“There’s not enough data to suggest that in Canada we would go into boosting as of yet,” she said. “But it is something that we’re watching very carefully.”
Tam’s comments come as Israel will begin offering a third shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to fully vaccinated people over the age of 60. Israel decided to offer the booster due to the highly transmissible Delta variant’s spread in the country.
Neither the European Union nor the United States has approved such a strategy.
Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, is getting a booster on Friday. It will be offered to the targeted population on Sunday.
Tam said Canada isn’t seeing many breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people at this point, but the country is getting “operationally ready” to implement a booster if needed.
“But we’re very much attuned to the potential for a need for booster,” she said. “And we’re getting operationally ready, whether it is looking at supply, whether we’re looking at the implementation side, the provinces are looking at, well, what if we did need one? How would we implement that?”
A breakthrough infection is when someone who is fully vaccinated contracts the virus. These are expected, according to experts, as no COVID-19 vaccine is 100 per cent effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people.
Earlier this week, the government announced it had reached 66 million vaccine doses procured – enough to vaccinate every eligible Canadian. But, vaccination rates in the country have slowed.
To date, roughly 80 per cent of eligible Canadians have at least one dose of a vaccine and 65 per cent are fully vaccinated.
“But we’ve got to get those first and second doses and that’s got to be the priority,” Tam said. “But we will, of course, be updating everyone should there be a change in the advice for boosters.”
Also on Friday, officials said that Canada is likely at the start of a Delta-driven fourth wave of the pandemic due to an upward trend in cases across the country.
Most are in the unvaccinated, but if vaccine uptake doesn’t increase in younger groups, cases could eventually exceed health-care system capacity, a long-range epidemic forecast reads.
With COVID-19 and its variants continuing to spread across the globe, some pharmaceutical companies have begun exploring the possibility of booster shots to target variants or boost immunity.
On Wednesday, Pfizer released a trial update that claimed its third dose generated virus-neutralizing antibodies against the Delta variant more than five times higher in younger people and more than 11 times higher in older people than from two doses.
However, some experts are skeptical and suggest that we might not actually need it.
“I don’t think there’s good clinical evidence,” Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist told Global News in an earlier interview.
Chagla said people “shouldn’t necessarily worry that these two shots are going to be useless in a few years.”
“These are the shots that are going to keep people out of hospital and … from dying,” he said.
John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, reiterated the sentiment.
“The general feeling that it is not the right time for a third dose of the mRNA vaccines,” he said. “We’re not saying it should never happen, but now is not the time.”
Regardless, officials are keeping an open mind, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
“We are very aware of Israel’s decision. Actually yesterday, a number of ministers had a good conversation with Dr. Theresa Tam, our chief public health officer, about the Delta variant and about booster shots,” she said at a separate news conference on Friday.
“As has been the case since the beginning of this pandemic, the Canadian response is going to be guided by science and by the advice of our medical officials.”
— With files from Global News’ Rachel Gilmore