The jury’s still out on whether the Omicron variant can evade the protection offered by existing COVID-19 vaccines — but the continued spread of the Delta variant makes getting your booster shot important, Canada’s top doctors said Friday.
Their comments came as Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) “strongly” recommended that adults aged 50 years and up be offered a booster shot. They said Canadians aged between 18 and 49 “may be offered” a booster too — six months after their second dose.
“Omicron is really not widespread in Canada. It’s very new,” said Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo, speaking in French on Friday.
“But right now, Delta is our variant of concern — and the vaccines we are currently administering are effective against serious illness and effective against Delta. Today’s recommendations on booster shots are to help improve people’s protection against COVID-19.”
Njoo added that the Omicron variant is “still being studied” and researchers are “trying to understand its implications,” particularly in three areas: transmissibility, severity, and impact on vaccines. Depending on what they find, it’s possible that the experts “might come out with other vaccines more adapted to Omicron, or other variants,” Njoo said.
“But that lies in the future. For now, it’s really important to point out that it’s not a good idea to wait for another vaccine to come out later on, because it’ll take several months at least,” he explained.
“For now it’s really important to deal with the situation head-on.”
The world will have more information on whether the Omicron COVID-19 variant is more transmissible than other variants “within days,” a top World Health Organization official said on Wednesday.
According to the most recent data from the government, the Delta variant makes up nearly 100 per cent of COVID-19 variants of concern found in Canada. To date, just six cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed.
“For now it’s really important to state that if you are in a high-risk category, if you are over 50, it’s a really good idea to get your booster shot,” Njoo said.
The WHO has warned that the global risk from Omicron is “very high,” with early evidence suggesting it might be more contagious than other variants of concern.
The variant has a number of mutations in two key areas of the virus’s spike protein, according to Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, including in areas that could increase transmissibility, and in areas that could impact the immunity offered by vaccines.
Generally speaking, there’s “no question” that a third COVID-19 vaccine dose is “very, very useful in boosting immunity,” according to Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who spoke to Global News on Wednesday.
The immunity conferred by a third COVID-19 vaccine dose, Evans added, “will probably cover most variants, including potentially Omicron.”
“That will help you at a very local level to control things should Omicron, for instance, demonstrate some evidence of vaccine escape,” he said.
That’s because booster shots offer your immune system the chance to “fine-tune antibodies it makes in response to vaccination,” Evans explained, which should strengthen your body’s ability to fight off the virus if you’re exposed to it.
However, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the Omicron variant, according to Evans.
“Evidence that’s emerging is suggesting that we really need to sort of ratchet down our worries and concerns. It appears that it causes mild infection or mild disease … and it certainly appears at the moment that vaccine offers protection,” Evans said.
“This is very early and very speculative, but people need to kind of just take a deep breath and kind of relax about these things while we wait to find out more information.”
Even if boosters do prove to be an effective tool against this particular variant, experts warn that new, potentially dangerous variants will continue to emerge until every country around the world has high vaccination rates.
That’s because the virus “takes advantage of widespread infections, which causes viral replication, which allows it to mutate,” according to Evans.
Those mutations can sometimes be advantageous for the virus, for example, by making it more transmissible, or teaching it to evade vaccines, according to multiple public health experts. The more COVID-19 spreads, the more replication occurs — and the more chances there are for a serious mutation to take hold.
“In Africa, the vaccination rate is seven per cent — seven per cent compared to about 70-plus per cent in Canada,” said WHO adviser Dr. Peter Singer in an interview with Global News on Thursday.
“That’s a breeding ground for variants.”
Canada has committed to donating the equivalent of at least 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to the COVAX Facility — a global vaccine-sharing initiative — by the end of 2022, a government website says.
“This includes over 50 million vaccine doses procured by Canada that were determined by Health Canada to be in excess of our domestic needs, plus financial support to COVAX for the procurement and delivery of doses,” it read.
“Over 8.3 million surplus vaccine doses have been delivered so far through the COVAX Facility. Canada has also shared 762,080 AstraZeneca doses through direct, bilateral arrangements with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.”