Won’t mean an immediate end to pan­demic

National Post (National Edition) - - CANADA - MIA RABSON

OT­TAWA • Canada’s top pub­lic health doc­tors warned Tues­day that vac­cines in de­vel­op­ment for COVID-19 pro­vide hope but will not mean an immediate end to the pan­demic.

Dr. Theresa Tam said the Pub­lic Health Agency of Canada is planning to be re­spond­ing to the pan­demic for at least a year and more likely two or three.

“I would say that a vac­cine is a very im­por­tant as­pect of the re­sponse go­ing for­ward but we can’t, at this stage, put all of our fo­cus in the hopes this is the sil­ver-bul­let so­lu­tion,” Tam said at a na­tional brief­ing on the COVID-19 sit­u­a­tion in Canada.

“It is a very im­por­tant so­lu­tion if we get a safe and ef­fec­tive vac­cine but I would say the pub­lic health mea­sures that we have in place, the per­sonal daily mea­sures that we take, is go­ing to have to con­tinue.”

There are more than two dozen vac­cines for COVID-19 in clin­i­cal tri­als around the world, and in the best-case sce­nario, one or two might be ap­proved for wide­spread use by the end of the year. But approval is only a step in the process, and it will take time to then pro­duce, dis­trib­ute and ad­min­is­ter bil­lions of doses of vac­cine around the world.

Dr. Srini­vas Murthy, a crit­i­cal-care spe­cial­ist and pan­demic re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, says the world has never at­tempted a vac­cine pro­gram at this speed or scale be­fore.

“We have no idea how this is go­ing to work,” he said.

Volker Gerdts, CEO of the Vac­cine and In­fec­tious Dis­ease Or­ga­ni­za­tion at the Univer­sity of Saskatchew­an, said he wants Cana­di­ans to know that even as the timeline for de­vel­op­ing vac­cines is ac­cel­er­ated, speed is not com­ing at the ex­pense of safety. He said Health Canada will not ap­prove a vac­cine that is not safe or that cut safety cor­ners to get through faster.

In 2009, when the H1N1 flu virus was de­clared a pan­demic, there was a widescale vac­ci­na­tion ef­fort but that ill­ness did not have the same im­pact as COVID-19, and the de­vel­op­ment of the vac­cine was dif­fer­ent be­cause flu vac­cines are de­vel­oped ev­ery year.

Murthy said the world knew it should have a spe­cific coro­n­avirus vac­cine be­cause a pan­demic like this was pre­dicted, but no­body ever got as far as mak­ing one, so the re­search was start­ing much fur­ther be­hind where H1N1 was when a pan­demic was de­clared. COVID-19 is also wider-spread and more lethal than H1N1 was.

“The whole world wants this one at the ex­act same time and that is some­thing that is go­ing to re­quire un­prece­dented amounts of co-ordination and col­lab­o­ra­tion across the world,” Murthy said.

The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion says vac­cines must be ef­fec­tive in at least 50 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion for any chance of approval, and closer to 70 per cent is bet­ter. Once a vac­cine de­vel­oper de­clares a vac­cine is both safe and ef­fec­tive, na­tions can be­gin the work to ap­prove its use on their cit­i­zens.

Here that falls to Health Canada, which is al­ready work­ing with the prov­inces, through the Na­tional Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee on Im­mu­niza­tion, to de­ter­mine how approval, man­u­fac­ture and dis­tri­bu­tion will work. The com­mit­tee is ex­pected to an­nounce be­fore the end of the sum­mer which seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion will be pri­or­i­tized for get­ting the vac­cine.

Dur­ing the H1N1 pan­demic, which was found to af­fect chil­dren more and se­niors less, pri­or­ity groups in­cluded the very young, health work­ers, re­mote com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple with chronic ill­nesses un­der the age of 65. This time the ex­pec­ta­tion is that older Cana­di­ans and front-line work­ers may be among the pri­or­ity groups.

Sta­tis­tics Canada re­ported that about two in five Cana­di­ans were vac­ci­nated in the first six months the H1N1 vac­cine was avail­able. Sup­ply of a COVID-19 vac­cine may be more dif­fi­cult, with such high de­mand. Canada is also, at the mo­ment, lim­ited in its abil­ity to pro­duce a vac­cine at home and may rely on internatio­nal man­u­fac­tur­ers to help.

Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia pe­di­atric in­fec­tious dis­ease spe­cial­ist Dr. Man­ish Sadarangan­i said peo­ple should see the goal as “con­trol­ling” the pan­demic rather than “end­ing” it. He said real­is­ti­cally, a vac­cine will only slow the spread of the novel coro­n­avirus at first.

Measles, mumps and po­lio all have vac­cines, he notes, but they still ex­ist and spread, of­ten be­cause of a lack of vac­ci­na­tions.

How­ever, he added, we don’t have to vac­ci­nate ev­ery­one to con­trol trans­mis­sion be­cause re­duc­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who can get or spread the virus will cut down on the in­fec­tion rate.


Chief Pub­lic Health Of­fi­cer Dr. Theresa ar­rives to hold a press con­fer­ence in Ot­tawa on Tues­day.

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