Calls grow to get second doses of COVID-19 vaccines out faster amid variants worry

·4 min read

OTTAWA — Vaccine experts and infectious disease specialists are urging provinces to move faster to start getting second doses into arms in Canada, particularly for seniors and people with high-risk health conditions.

"We definitely need to get a move on," said Dr. David Naylor, co-chair of the national immunity task force, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"I think there are compelling reasons to be picking up the pace on second doses."

Almost 20.5 million Canadians have received at least their first dose as of Thursday, but fewer than two million of those have been fully vaccinated with both required doses.

Canada delayed second doses up to 16 weeks in March, on the advice of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, because vaccine supplies were so scarce.

The strategy has worked to a point, with more than half of Canadians now having at least one shot, and evidence from the United Kingdom that delaying Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca 12 weeks produced stronger immune responses in the end.

While most provinces are setting their own vaccine markers for reopening the economy, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam wants one-fifth of eligible Canadians to have both doses, and 75 per cent to have at least one, before provinces consider loosening restrictions on outdoor activities.

Canada is likely to get to 75 per cent with one dose by June 21, but one-fifth with two doses is harder to gauge. Canada would have to triple the number of second doses it gives every day, immediately, to get there by Canada Day.

Second doses are slowly increasing. Even a week ago, fewer than one in 10 shots given went to a second dose. In the last two days it has exceeded 15 per cent.

But it's not fast enough for some.

Naylor cited a new study from Public Health England this week which showed two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca were two or three times as effective than just one dose at preventing a symptomatic infection of COVID-19 from two common variants, B.1.1.7 and B. 1.617.2.

He said there isn't data yet that shows how sick people were getting if infected after one dose, which will make a difference in how troublesome the news is to Canada.

Naylor also said seniors who have been waiting the longest for their second dose, who have been the most cautious about their activities and warned their immune systems aren't as strong after just one dose, also deserve to have their second appointments moved up.

"I think from the standpoint of risk mitigation, as well as compassion, it would be a good thing to get on with moving those second doses along for seniors, and for individuals with any meaningful form of immune compromise," he said.

Several Toronto doctors were echoing that sentiment on social media this week including intensive care physician Dr. Michael Warner.

"Vaccines are effective but one shot not nearly good enough for elderly/vulnerable," he tweeted. "The best way to maintain our positive trajectory and minimize impact of this variant on the health-care system is to fully vaccinate at-risk individuals ASAP."

Warner said he was currently caring for a husband and a wife, both in their 80s, who had their first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech, but weren't scheduled to get their second dose for more than a month from now.

The move to administer second doses is happening slowly. British Columbia announced Thursday it is looking to cut the second-dose wait from 16 weeks to eight.

Manitoba is now booking second shots for people vaccinated the first time at least nine weeks ago.

Quebec hopes to announce a second-dose plan next week with plans to allow people to start rescheduling their second dose earlier starting June 7.

Ontario's vaccine task force met Wednesday to discuss that province's second-dose strategy.

Most provinces are also allowing second doses of AstraZeneca to the earliest recipients of it, largely as they try to use up doses that are expiring as early as next week.

With provinces no longer offering the vaccine for first doses because of the potential risk of a rare blood-clotting disorder, thousands of doses of AstraZeneca are now at risk of expiring on Monday. That includes at least 45,000 in Ontario and 7,000 in Manitoba.

Ontario was trying to get the doses from storage freezers to pharmacies but said a quality assurance check had delayed that distribution slightly.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu wrote to her provincial and territorial counterparts Wednesday asking them to give any doses they can't use before they expire to a province that can.

Newfoundland sent 1,400 doses back to Ottawa this week ahead of their expiration on Monday, but federal officials couldn't say what the plan was to try and get them used in the next few days.

Brig. Gen. Krista Brodie, in charge of logistics for the Public Health Agency of Canada, said the doses will be destroyed if they can't be used.

— With files from Joan Bryden

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2021.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press