Boosters or global vaccine sharing? Canada can do both amid Omicron: experts

Click to play video: 'WHO: Omicron variant cases highlight vaccine inequity around the world'
WHO: Omicron variant cases highlight vaccine inequity around the world
WATCH: WHO: Omicron variant cases highlight vaccine inequity around the world – Nov 30, 2021

The discovery of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant has reignited the issue of global vaccine inequality as richer nations debate whether to accelerate third doses of vaccines.

But as Canadian officials figure out how to protect their populations, they must also not lose focus on vaccinating other parts of the world to stop new variants from emerging, experts say.

“There has been a lack of appreciation and foresight into how important and directly impactful it is to ensure that we vaccinate the entire world,” said Dr. Matthew Miller, associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster University.

“We need to be thinking really carefully and deliberately about how we ensure that nations and regions that have not had good vaccine availability get access to those vaccines.”

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Third doses for Omicron protection

Following the revelation of Omicron last week, which the WHO warns poses a “very high” risk, wealthy nations around the world have taken steps to try and protect their populations.

Among those measures are travel bans. mainly on nations in Africa, where the variant was discovered, but also on accelerating expanding third dose rollouts.

The United Kingdom has decided to open booster shots for all adults, and the head of the European Commission said Wednesday the European Union needs daily reviews of its travel restrictions and rapid deployment of boosters to protect from Omicron. It is unclear right now if the variant is more deadly, or if it can evade current vaccines.

The Canadian government has requested the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) to quickly provide the latest directives on booster use in light of the Omicron variant, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Tuesday.

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Click to play video: 'NACI reviewing COVID-19 booster shot program with arrival of Omicron variant'
NACI reviewing COVID-19 booster shot program with arrival of Omicron variant

Some of Canada’s provinces are also debating the expansion of third doses among their populations.

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In Ontario, third dose eligibility has been expanded over the fall to include more at-risk people. But if Omicron is proven to be more harmful, that eligibility may expand, Ontario health officials said Monday.

Spokespersons for governments in Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Saskatchewan and British Columbia told Global News officials are monitoring the development of Omicron to see if third doses need to be expanded.

Meanwhile, a Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson told Global News that NACI will be providing updated advice on boosters, but did not provide a timeline.

“NACI is actively reviewing available evidence from Canada and other countries,” they said. “NACI considers variants of concern throughout their deliberations, and this will be a consideration for their booster program advice.”

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Until more is learned about the Omicron variant, infectious diseases expert Dr. Lisa Barrett cautions against widespread third doses, but said its discovery should serve as a reminder for vulnerable populations to get added protection.

“Immunocompromised people, and particularly those who are older, those people really should be out and getting their third doses now because this particular virus might be a little bit different,” said Barrett, an assistant professor with Dalhousie University. News.

“Third doses are good still for some people,” Barrett said, yet she added: “Not everybody needs a third dose, and we’re not sure how good a third dose is going to be at protecting from any variant of concern until we see what happens.”

If Omicron is proven to be a serious threat, Dr. Barry Pakes believes Canada has enough vaccines in stock to prioritize booster rollout and international inoculation.

“There’s no doubt that all national governments … recognize that until the whole world is vaccinated, and as long as there is a very active transmission in any part of the world, there’s still this possibility for new variants to emerge,” said Pakes, an infectious diseases expert and chief medical officer of health for York Region.

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“It’s all of our obligation to make sure that there is as little transmission as possible everywhere … but that still does mean that countries really do need to protect themselves … and for those of us who are very global-health minded, we want to make sure that it’s done equitably.”

Canada remains ‘committed’ to vaccine sharing

Canada’s vaccination rate vastly differs from other countries in the world. Right now, 86 per cent of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated whereas the world’s population overall is 43.58 per cent fully vaccinated, Johns Hopkins University indicates.

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However, Johns Hopkins’ data shows large portions of Africa remain unvaccinated. In Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, only 1.74 per cent of eligible Nigerians are fully vaccinated. In Ethiopia, 1.28 per cent of its eligible population is fully inoculated.

Many African nations have had challenges with their vaccine rollouts, and have wasted doses that have been given with short notices and short shelf lives. Some countries have also run into vaccine hesitancy, which has impacted uptake.

Those challenges show that global vaccine equity is more than just supplying shots, Barrett said, adding wealthy countries like Canada need to help with rollouts even as they boost their populations.

“Vaccine rollouts have been so ineffective in some places that they’ve been throwing vaccines out because it expires over the last number of months,” she said.

“How do we start to support other countries in a real way to get their vaccine rollout in a more effective space and place, so they’re not throwing out expired vaccine doses?”

Click to play video: 'Scientists trying to determine vaccine efficacy against Omicron variant'
Scientists trying to determine vaccine efficacy against Omicron variant

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the government is “committed” to the global COVID-19 fight.

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“Canada will continue to prioritize the sharing of excess doses through the COVAX Facility (the WHO’s global vaccine initiative), to ensure vaccines get to those who need them most, while continuing to meet domestic needs,” the spokesperson said.

“Doses shared through the COVAX Facility are already being rolled out to address urgent needs experienced around the world, with more doses becoming available for distribution on a rolling basis as they are produced.”

To date, Canada has donated more than 8.3 million surplus vaccine doses through COVAX, and has also shared 762,080 AstraZeneca doses through direct, bilateral arrangements with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The government has also pledged to donate at least 200 million doses to the COVAX by the end of 2022.

For Miller, the issue of boosting populations or sharing more vaccines with the world isn’t an either-or choice.

However, world governments must ensure their international strategies work “in concert” with domestic vaccination, he said.

“They’re not going to put aside what they feel is the best course of action to protect their own citizens and in order to divert vaccines to other places. … (That’s why) we need to be developing strategies where those two things can happen in concert because it’s the only practical way to solve the problem,” Miller said.

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“It’s a pointless exercise to try and end a pandemic by only focusing on the issues that impact a country within the confines of its own borders, because the reality is that we live in a highly globalized world with rapid travel … so our responses to pandemics have to be coordinated in a way that respects that reality.”

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