Around half of Manitoba’s positive COVID-19 cases are now caused by the fast-spreading BA.5 coronavirus subvariant, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Wednesday.
BA.5 — a subvariant of the Omicron coronavirus variant — “has been steadily increasing over the past many weeks and we anticipate that it will continue to trend,” Roussin said at a news conference, where he also announced plans to roll out vaccines for kids under the age of five.
Roussin says the province’s latest modelling points to a decline in COVID-19 case numbers, but that does not factor in the BA.5 variant, which is more immune evasive than previous strains.
Despite the likelihood of cases increasing over the next few months and into the fall, Roussin says there are no plans to further expand eligibility for second boosters of COVID-19 vaccines or bring back mask mandates.
WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin on why Manitoba isn’t expanding 4th-dose eligibility now:
Roussin cited lagging third dose uptake as one reason — only 55 per cent of Manitobans age 18 and up have received their third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to numbers sent by the province to CBC on Wednesday.
He also pointed to a potential “bivalent” vaccine campaign in the fall as a reason for not expanding eligibility at this point.
The COVID-19 vaccines currently available are “monovalent” vaccines, which were developed with the original strain of the virus in mind.
A bivalent vaccine, like the one Moderna is developing, would target specific portions of the virus seen in both the original strain and newer strains.
“Because there’s going to be a three-to-six-month interval between doses, a large fourth-dose campaign right now could potentially delay the receipt of a possibly better vaccine in the fall,” Roussin explained.
WATCH | Roussin on BA.5 subvariant:
Not everyone is happy about that strategy.
Winnipegger Alan Simpson said he wants to get his fourth dose to avoid passing COVID-19 on to his parents and protect himself when he goes back to work at a college in the fall. The 46-year-old is four years too young to get a second booster shot.
“I feel like if I have COVID and don’t know it, I could pass it on without even knowing and put my parents in extreme risk,” Simpson said.
“I would love to have something more. I haven’t been boosted in eight months — almost nine now. I would like have something in before I go back in and am exposed to 100 maskless people per day.”
Need to keep up with ‘virulent’ variants: prof
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s most recent recommendations suggest that a fourth dose should only be given to people with the highest risk of severe COVID-19.
In Manitoba, current eligibility for fourth doses includes individuals aged 50 and older; First Nations, Métis and Inuit people aged 30 and older; residents of personal care homes and elderly people living in group settings; and moderately to severely immunocompromised people aged 18 to 49.
Only 27 per cent of Manitobans in the 50-and-older age group have had a fourth shot, the province says.
Elsewhere in the country, some provinces like Ontario and Quebec have expanded their fourth dose eligibility to anyone 18 and older in response to the BA.5 variant surge.
Richard Sparling, a professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Manitoba, said he hopes Manitoba follows the lead of other provinces on that front as soon as possible.
“The Omicron variants that are being propagated are very virulent. The symptoms are lower, but they are very virulent. And the vaccines that we currently have are less effective,” he said.
“So keeping up with the booster shots is that much more important, especially since the immunity seems to wane after six, eight months after the previous dose.”