Boosters not enough to blunt Omicron wave, experts say: ‘There isn’t time’

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Still unclear if vaccines need tweaking to address Omicron variant, EMA says'
COVID-19: Still unclear if vaccines need tweaking to address Omicron variant, EMA says
WATCH: Still unclear if vaccines need tweaking to address Omicron variant, EMA says – Dec 21, 2021

Ontario opened up appointments for COVID-19 booster shots on Monday morning — and in many regions, they were gone in minutes.

While demand is high for third doses of COVID-19 vaccine, the supply can’t keep up, and experts say we can’t beat the Omicron variant wave through vaccination alone.

Click to play video: 'Bumps in Ontario’s rollout for booster shots'
Bumps in Ontario’s rollout for booster shots
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“There isn’t time,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

“The fact of the matter is that we have millions of these to deliver and we need time to do that. And we also need time for them to take effect.”

Click to play video: 'Omicron COVID-19 variant growing faster than Delta, vaccinated could become infected or reinfected: WHO'
Omicron COVID-19 variant growing faster than Delta, vaccinated could become infected or reinfected: WHO

Given that it takes around two weeks for your immune system to develop a good antibody response to a third dose, he said, it could take until March before most of the population is protected.

“The Omicron wave will be done by then,” he said.

Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, thinks that Omicron just spreads too quickly.

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“I think what we are seeing with Omicron is an unprecedented ferocity in the way that it is spreading,” Muhajarine said.

Quebec set a pandemic record with 4,571 new COVID-19 cases reported on Monday. Ontario reported 3,784 new cases — more than double what it counted a week ago. Cases in many other provinces are rapidly rising, too.

The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table estimates that each person with the Omicron variant infects on average more than three others, which would account for the rapidly climbing case counts in the province.

“I don’t think that we can actually get ahead of the spread of Omicron at this point,” Muhajarine said.

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For Dr. Don Vinh, an infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre, the booster campaign isn’t so much about stopping Omicron’s spread as it is protecting people from the worst effects of COVID-19.

“The strategy to prevent hospitalizations is going to be through boosters,” he said.

If you have two vaccine doses, get a third, he said. And if you’ve only had one, or none, get more, he said.

Furness believes that having three doses of vaccine will help us fight the virus down the road, even if it won’t save Canada from Omicron in the next month.

“Once Omicron cases fall, they will fall in part because of increasing immunization, and Omicron will not come back because of increased immunization,” he said.

“Vaccines are a long-term strategy, not a temporary strategy, and to get rid of this pandemic, we all need a long term strategy, and vaccination will be the most important tool.”

Click to play video: 'Moderna says COVID-19 booster shot appears effective against Omicron variant'
Moderna says COVID-19 booster shot appears effective against Omicron variant

Muhajarine agrees.

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“Getting a booster or third dose, it’s a preparation for us to what might come in the future,” he said, adding this could mean increased protection against new variants.

To fight this wave, Furness said, we will need to rely instead on pre-vaccine pandemic control techniques, like shutting down large events and ensuring everyone wears a good-quality N95 mask.

“We have to not have people in restaurants or gyms or movie theatres. Not forever, but for weeks,” he said. “The idea that gatherings up to a thousand people can proceed as-is is frankly crazy.

“The idea that gigantic multi-thousand person gatherings can proceed as long as it’s at 50 per cent capacity, this sounds like a buffet feast for Omicron. We mustn’t have this.”

This wave will likely hit hard and fast, and be over quickly, he said, especially if we don’t do anything to stop it.

“I’m expecting January to be really a very miserable month,” Furness said. “And it’s plausible that that Omicron will fade away as quickly as it’s come. In other words, if it infects enough people fast enough, it will have nowhere to go, just like a fire that uses up all the oxygen in the room has nowhere to go and burns itself out quite quickly.”

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The problem with that, he said, is it crashes health-care systems and causes mortality to rise. “I think that’s not what we should be wishing for.”

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