New vaccine brings optimism amid rising threat of variants, high case counts

·3 min read

Canada's vaccine rollout received a boost Friday with the approval of a third COVID-19 inoculation, giving the country another immunization option at a time when case counts remain nearly 75 per cent higher than they were at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic.

Health Canada approved its third COVID-19 vaccine on Friday, this time from AstraZeneca, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an additional partnership with an India-based institute that will deliver two million more doses of the newly authorized jab to Canadians by the spring.

While numbers of cases and hospitalizations have dropped from all-time highs just weeks ago, variants of concern are rising in parts of the country.

Canada's top doctor Theresa Tam said Friday the country had 964 reported cases of the variant first detected in the U.K., up from 429 reported two weeks ago. There were also 44 cases of the variant first discovered in South Africa, and two cases of the version first found in Brazil.

"The risk of rapid re-acceleration remains," Tam said. "At the same time new variants continue to emerge ... and can become predominant."

Tam added that daily COVID-19 case counts are nearly 75 per cent higher than they were last spring, and that the average daily case counts in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have increased between eight and 14 per cent over the previous week.

As of Thursday evening, federal data shows there have been 858,217 COVID-19 cases in Canada, including 21,865 deaths, since the beginning of the pandemic.

Tam warned that COVID-19 variants can still emerge and those that spread more quickly can become dominant.

However, progress on the vaccine front is a source of optimism, Tam noted.

"To date, over 1.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered across Canada. And there are early indications of high vaccine efficacy."

Canada's partnership with Mississauga, Ont.'s Verity Pharmaceuticals and the Serum Institute of India means the country is set to receive two million doses of the CoviShield vaccine — essentially the same as AstraZeneca's product. Trudeau said the first shipment of half a million doses will arrive by March.

Those two million incoming doses of CoviShield are in addition to the 20 million doses Canada already secured with AstraZeneca that will start arriving in the spring.

Health Canada's chief medical adviser Dr. Supriya Sharma said in a briefing Friday that the CoviShield and AstraZeneca products are "for all intents and purposes" the same vaccine.

The difference is in where they are manufactured, she said, using the analogy of the same recipe made in two different kitchens.

Trudeau said as vaccinations ramp up across the country, many provinces have expanded the number of health professions able to administer a COVID-19 vaccine, and he asked for dentists, midwives, pharmacy technicians and retired nurses to lend a hand in the rollout.

"Job 1 remains beating this pandemic," Trudeau said, adding that the federal government will continue to send rapid tests to provinces in hopes of getting more Canadians tested.

"We still have to be very careful, especially with new variants out there. We all want to start the spring in the best shape possible."

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, added that the country's vaccine rollout will be just one method in slowing the spread of new variants and avoiding a third wave.

He said public health measures aimed at halting transmission such as physical distancing and limiting contacts remain important.

Experts advising the Ontario government said this week more contagious variants of COVID-19 are expected to make up 40 per cent of cases by the second week of March.

Ontario reported 1,258 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, with 362 of them in Toronto, 274 in Peel Region and 104 in York Region. There were also 28 more deaths linked to the virus in the province since the last daily update.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2021.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press