Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine now available to some New Brunswickers

·4 min read
Moderna's bivalent vaccine shows 'significantly higher responses' to the Omicron BA.1 virus in comparison to the company's original coronavirus vaccine, Spikevax, Health Canada has said. (Rogelio V. Solis/The Associated Press - image credit)
Moderna's bivalent vaccine shows 'significantly higher responses' to the Omicron BA.1 virus in comparison to the company's original coronavirus vaccine, Spikevax, Health Canada has said. (Rogelio V. Solis/The Associated Press - image credit)

Some New Brunswickers now have access to the new COVID-19 vaccine that targets the Omicron variant BA.1, as well as the original coronavirus.

People 50 and older, those aged 12 to 17 who are immunocompromised or have a high-risk medical condition, and those aged 18 and older who live in a First Nations community are eligible for the so-called bivalent vaccine, as long as five months have passed since their last vaccine dose or a COVID-19 infection, the Department of Health announced Wednesday.

"Eligible New Brunswickers should be able to book an appointment for a Moderna Spikevax Bivalent Original/Omicron BA.1 booster vaccine at some participating pharmacies as early as today, with more pharmacies coming online as we progress through the week," spokesperson Adam Bowie told CBC News in an email.

The regional health authorities may also continue to offer some vaccination clinics where access is limited in certain locations around the province, based on community demand, he said.

Until now, only monovalent vaccines, protecting against only one strain of the virus, have been available in the province.

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

Dr. Arifur Rahman, the province's acting deputy chief medical officer of health, said it's important for people to stay up-to-date with boosters, even if they're not eligible for the bivalent vaccine yet.

"We plan to expand eligibility criteria as more bivalent vaccines become available, but individuals eligible for a fall booster dose should not delay getting their planned COVID-19 vaccination in anticipation of a bivalent vaccine," he said in a statement.

"Vaccines are our best defence against severe outcomes."

The Omicron variant BA.1 emerged late last year and drove the largest wave of infection and hospitalization in the pandemic.

Of the most recent random samples sent for sequencing in the province, 98 per cent were the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant BA.5, one per cent were the Omicron subvariant BA.4, and the other one per cent were Omicron subvariant BA.2.

Most vulnerable first

In Quebec, the bivalent vaccine has been offered to all adults, as well as some some teens and children, for a week.

Health Canada approved the bivalent on Sept. 1.

Jake Reid, executive director of the New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association, expects the province will open up eligibility within weeks.

"One of the things that we were told as pharmacists is that for the inventory that we have on hand, we want to make sure that we protect the most vulnerable. And so we're going to do that first and then we'll be able to offer it to everyone else afterwards," he said.

Some First Nation communities will offer clinics for their community members "in the near future," the Department of Health spokesperson said, and residents in long-term care facilities will also be eligible to receive a bivalent shot, along with their influenza vaccine, beginning in October.

Submitted by Jake Reid
Submitted by Jake Reid

Vaccination clinics at pharmacies will run as inventory comes in, according to Reid.

"The inventory for bivalent COVID vaccines is going to be, in some ways, replacing what we have right now. So I anticipate that the pharmacies who are right now part of the COVID vaccination program would continue and that they will be able to offer bivalent as soon as they have it."

It's difficult to gauge interest in this new formulation, Reid said.

"There's definitely a vocal part of the population who are excited by this," he said. "They understand that this is a new version of the vaccine, that it's going to specifically target the Omicron variant, which we know spreads much faster through the population."

But overall uptake of vaccines and boosters has been trending down, Reid noted.

"Not as many people have been getting their boosters when they're due for them. Younger people aren't getting their vaccines when they should be sometimes."

As of Tuesday, 90.5 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, 85.4 per cent have received their second dose, 53.6 per cent have received their third dose, also known as a first booster, and 20.9 per cent have received a fourth dose, or second booster, Rahman said.

The Department of Health did not respond to a request to provide a breakdown by ages.

Paxlovid announcement pending

Changes to the guidelines for the antiviral COVID-19 treatment drug Paxlovid are expected next week, according to the news release.

The Department of Health is still reviewing the eligibility criteria for the drug, currently only available to "people who are at high risk of serious illness." That includes people aged 80 or older and others who are "moderately to severely immunocompromised."

Paxlovid is approved for people who have mild to moderate symptoms of the virus.

"The department is examining ways to improve access to the oral antiviral and will have more details to share next week," the release said.

Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 per cent in non-hospitalized high-risk adults with COVID-19, compared to a placebo during its clinical trial, according to Pfizer.

The drug must be taken within five days of the onset of symptoms.

A full course of treatment consists of 30 pills over five days.