The approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine will speed up Manitoba’s timeline for vaccinating all eligible age groups, but how much of an impact it has remains to be seen, says the head of the provincial government’s vaccine implementation task force.
“This is great news for our timeline and really does push us closer to our high-supply scenario” for future vaccination rollout, Dr. Joss Reimer said during a media briefing Friday.
Health Canada announced earlier Friday it had approved the vaccine developed by Oxford University-AstraZeneca, clearing the way for millions more doses of vaccine to come into the country.
Manitoba is basing its vaccine eligibility for members of the general public on age, starting with the oldest Manitobans and gradually working down.
The vaccine task force has released two separate timelines for when it expects to immunize each age group, under low- and high-supply scenarios.
Under the low-supply scenario — which assumed using only the previously approved Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines — the province estimated it would complete vaccinations by the end of November.
Under the high-supply scenario, which assumed a third vaccine would become available, the province could complete vaccinations by the end of August.
WATCH | Dr. Joss Reimer says Health Canada approval of AstraZeneca is ‘great news’:
Easier storage, lower efficacy rate
AstraZeneca’s vaccine doesn’t have to be stored at the exceptionally low temperatures required for Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s vaccines.
The AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored and transported at normal refrigerated temperatures of 2 to 8 C for at least six months, which means it can be administered in a wider range of settings, such as physicians’ offices and pharmacies.
Health Canada regulators have determined the new vaccine to be 62 per cent effective at preventing infection, which is less effective than the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
However, the shot is 100 per cent effective in preventing the severe outcomes of COVID-19 — including serious illness, hospitalizations and death — the regulators said.
“I think that’s the most important factor, is it kept people out of the ICU, and it kept people off of ventilators,” said virologist Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor in the department of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba.
The availability of multiple vaccines raises the possibility people might be reluctant to take one if they know it has a lower efficacy rating, which poses challenges for public health messaging, he said.
“The most important factor right now for us [is] it’s keeping people out of the hospital, and as well trying to curb transmission. The AZ vaccine actually looks really good in both of those regards.”
Dose numbers still unknown
It’s too soon to know how much the AstraZeneca approval will alter Manitoba’s vaccination timeline, because no one knows yet how many doses the province will actually get.
“This is only good news as far as how long it will take to reach all Manitobans,” Reimer said.
“The more options we have and the more convenient it is for people to receive a vaccine, the more Manitobans will be able to receive it before the end of summer.”
The province is in the process of determining who will be eligible to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine. Health officials are waiting for the National Advisory Committee on Immunizations to release its recommendations.
Some countries in Europe have limited use of the vaccine to people under the age of 65, even though the World Health Organization says the product is effective for all age groups.
Health Canada said clinical trial results “were too limited to allow a reliable estimate of vaccine efficacy in individuals 65 years of age and older,” but was comfortable approving the vaccine due to experience in places its already been used.
WATCH | Health Canada’s Dr. Supriya Sharma outlines efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccine:
“If it ends up being that we stick to a younger age cohort [for AstraZeneca in Manitoba], then we’ll have to make some decisions about who is highest risk in the younger age cohort,” Reimer said.
Like the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, AstraZeneca’s requires two shots. Health Canada has recommended the second dose be administered four to 12 weeks after the first.
Reimer said Manitoba will look at the results of the trials and decide whether to continue with the current process of administering second doses within three to four weeks, or stretching that time period in order to get more first doses to Manitobans.
Around 500 physicians and pharmacies have applied to administer vaccines once a suitable candidate becomes available, and about 250 of those are approved and ready to go, Reimer said.
Doctors Manitoba issued a statement welcoming the approval of the new vaccine.
“This approval means Manitobans are one step closer to getting the vaccine from their doctor, a trusted medical professional who knows their health situation best,” president Dr. Cory Baillie said in the statement.
It’s possible that AstraZeneca could be considered as part of a door-to-door vaccination campaign, to reach people who are unable to leave their home, but who don’t live in a personal care home or other facility targeted by mobile immunization teams, she said.