OTTAWA — The first doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Canada on Wednesday as confusion persists over who should get the shot.
Canada is getting just short of a million total doses this week, including half a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The vaccine is the third approved in the county and was authorized on Friday for use on all adults, including seniors. However, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is concerned there is limited data on how well the vaccine will work in older populations.
Therefore, NACI is not recommending the shot for anyone over the age of 65.
While all three approved vaccines are 100 per cent effective against death and hospitalization as a result of COVID-19, NACI says the two mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna should be prioritized for older Canadians.
Health officials are under pressure to efficiently distribute the newly arrived AstraZeneca doses because 300,000 of the 500,000 doses that arrive this week will expire by the first week of April.
Dr. Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser at Health Canada, says Health Canada echoes the messaging that it’s preferable to give seniors the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which have proven in clinical trials to be more effective in guarding older people against COVID-19.
But Sharma says seniors shouldn’t wait for a Pfizer or Moderna shot if they have the opportunity to get the AstraZeneca vaccine sooner.
Meanwhile, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says NACI recommendations are not final.
“They will update as needed but this is what they recommend at this point in time,” said Tam on Tuesday.
Tam says all vaccines should be administered as soon as they arrive and that it is up to provinces to determine who is best placed to get which vaccines — but all are safe and effective.
Ontario’s health minister said Tuesday that the province is expected to secure doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine next week but will follow a national panel’s advice not to inoculate anyone above 65 years old with the shot.
“It can be used very quickly in a number of places for mass vaccination clinics and a number of correctional facilities,” said Christine Elliott.
Elliott announced that the province will make an announcement on the distribution of AstraZeneca’s vaccine soon, adding that the plan to administer the shots is still being finalized. She says Ontario will wait for confirmation from the NACI on delaying the second dose before releasing details to the public.
Other provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta, and Prince Edward Island, plan to follow the advisory committee’s advice and target the AstraZeneca vaccine at younger people working in front-line essential services or in high-risk settings like prisons.
“Let me be very clear: the vaccine you are offered is the best vaccine,” B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday. “All of the vaccines that we have available for use in Canada are safe and effective and a single dose provides good protection from all of them, and we will be continuing to monitor that.”
Henry said B.C. has built the foundational part of its vaccine rollout on the vaccines it has most access to early on. However, that won’t stop the province from distributing the AstraZeneca shot.
“It is approved for use by Health Canada but our program here in B.C. is to focus it on the younger age group because we have a very strong program based on age and we think that the timing for people in their 60s will be in the next few months, whereas we know that if we can target younger people who have more social interactions who would have to wait much longer for the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines that we can make a greater impact and protect more people in that sector,” Henry said. “So our program will be targeting younger people, yes.”
Some provinces, including Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, are still mulling over the issue.
A recent analysis in England showed a single shot of either AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reduces the chance of needing hospital treatment by more than 80 per cent.
“All of these vaccines are 100 per cent good at preventing serious cases,” epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan told CityNews. “So if your goal here is to avoid having scarred lungs and long-term disability and hospitalization and death, all the vaccines that Health Canada has authorized get that job done.”
Deonandan cautioned against comparing vaccines head to head.
“There may not be a decision to be made,” says Deonandan. “You’re offered what you’re offered.”
Canada is also getting 445,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week.
The country is on track to receive a total of 6.5 million vaccine doses by the end of March.