Rob Shaw: Questions and pointed answers about vaccine supply and whether one complete dose will be enough.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has spent hours over the past month explaining to British Columbians when they’ll get their turn to be vaccinated. But it’s possible that an initial jab in the arm is only the tip of a very large iceberg – you and your loved ones might need to be protected from the COVID-19 virus many more times.
Henry has begun inserting caveats into what was otherwise a seemingly straight-forward mass vaccination campaign announced in January.
They centre around the latest science, and whether one complete dose of the vaccine (two shots in total for Pfizer and Moderna) can protect the public as COVID continues to mutate and evolve into a variety of concerning sub-strains.
The virus’s quick-changing variants have raised a potentially sobering reality: This mass vaccination campaign might become an annual or semi-annual event.
In short: One dose of COVID-19 vaccine may not be enough.
“There is a growing sense from most of us that we will see it as a reoccurring respiratory virus in the respiratory season, so fall and winter for us over the coming years,” Dr. Henry said Friday.
“But whether we have enough immunity that it will not cause these explosive outbreaks and lead to hospitalizations and overwhelming of health care systems, as we’ve seen in this past year – we hope that is not going to happen, that things will settle down as immunity increases.”
In short: One dose of COVID-19 vaccine may not be enough.
B.C. has seen more than 60 people infected with variants of the virus – 40 with the U.K. version, 19 with the South African strain and one with the Nigerian version. Each one is more infectious, greatly concerning health officials around the world, including here in B.C.
“We are in such a tricky place right now, because we don’t yet know the impact of these variants,” Henry said. “It only takes a few introductions for it to take off.”
There is still hope that if Canada can secure a glut of vaccines, and B.C. can vaccinate most of its priority population and elderly residents by this spring, then the summer months may be relatively safe.
But there’s still a lot of unknowns.
Chief among the questions is whether the COVID-19 virus and its variants will turn into “a more benign respiratory virus we’ve seen with some of the other coronaviruses over the years” after most of the population gets the vaccine and is immune, said Henry.
Scientists also aren’t sure exactly how long the vaccine will protect people.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have efficacy rates in the high 90 per cent range, which makes them extraordinarily efficient protectors, thanks to the synthetic mRNA technology used to manufacture them. It’s just the length of that protection that’s in doubt.
“There is a possibility that we might need boosters at some point in the future, said Henry.
“But whether that is going to be yearly like we see with influenza, or whether that might be periodically every three to five years or whatever, we don’t yet know that. That’s a possibility.”
All of this draws into sharp importance the requirement that Canada obtain enough vaccines for its provinces.
So far, it’s done a miserable job, having fumbled the issue of domestic production, had a contract with a Chinese company vetoed by that government, misjudged the health approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines with contracts that don’t ramp up supply until April, and been unable to extract any sympathetic purchases from our allies in the United States and European Union.
All of this draws into sharp importance the requirement that Canada obtain enough vaccines for its provinces. So far, it’s done a miserable job.
That’s led to a fascinating changing dynamic in the relationship between B.C. and Ottawa.
Whereas B.C. was loath to publicly criticize the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for its middling procurement efforts in the past, it has slowly begun taking its gloves off.
Most recently that manifested itself in a show of support for Manitoba, which has publicly declared its intent to purchase its own additional vaccine supply from a Calgary-based company that has yet to obtain Health Canada approval.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said Friday he’s interested in Manitoba’s strategy, will be speaking to the same company, and wants to take steps to secure B.C.’s supply as well.
On Tuesday, he and Dr. Henry expressed visible frustration when a reporter pointed out that Washington State is set to return to normal in spring due to an enormous effort that is delivering more vaccines per day than Canada has in total over months.
“I don’t know if you can read the frustration in my face,” said Henry. “It is what it is. It doesn’t make vaccine come any quicker to be upset or angry or mad about it. We’re playing the hand we were dealt. We are committed to getting immunizations as fast into people’s arms to protect people as we receive them. We’ve been doing that very effectively so far.”
B.C.’s mass vaccination clinics will only start in March for elders and seniors, and for the rest of the province in April, she said. Of course, that’s barring any more unforeseen delays and political posturing by the vaccine companies and the countries that host their manufacturing plants.
“I don’t know if you can read the frustration in my face,” said Henry. “It is what it is.”
B.C.’s turn on the federal vaccine efforts is partly a realization that vaccines may become a permanent part of our post-COVID life. It’s also partly a result of the Trudeau government taking cheapshots at its COVID efforts to try and score points as it ramps up for a potential snap federal election.
“Some of the reasons why there isn’t domestic capacity to produce vaccines in Canada are well-known,” Dix said Tuesday.
“There’s a debate about that from our past. Past decisions that were made about this have affected us now. There’s no question about that.
“Let’s be clear — we have to make sure, I think, as a country and Canada at the national level has to make sure that this situation is dealt with in the future.”
A warning shot from B.C. to Ottawa: We are in this for the long haul. Perhaps a very long haul indeed.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
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