The head of Ontario's COVID-19 vaccine task force is calling on Health Canada to "look into" the possibility of providing Moderna's vaccine as a single dose, rather than two, in a bid to quickly expand capacity as cases of the illness surge in the province.
Retired general Rick Hillier said Tuesday that the first shipment of about 50,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine is expected to arrive in Ontario within 24 hours. It will be distributed to four sites in hotspots throughout southern Ontario before they are sent to long-term care and retirement facilities.
"I know it's late to ask for a Christmas gift. But if I could ask for one, I would ask Health Canada to re-look at the Moderna vaccine and see if we can make that a one-shot vaccine to give us that greater capacity to go out and vaccinate people even faster than we plan on doing it now," Hillier told reporters.
As it stands currently, the Moderna vaccine requires two doses administered about 28 days apart. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only other COVID-19 vaccine currently approved for use by Health Canada, also involves two doses, taken some three weeks apart.
WATCH | Retired general Rick Hillier asks if the Moderna vaccine could be a single dose:
Hillier said that if the Moderna vaccine were to be made a single dose, "that would allow us to get literally hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even several million" vaccinated more efficiently.
Hillier's request comes as Ontario this morning reported a record-high 2,553 new cases of COVID-19 and the deaths of 78 people with the illness over the last two days.
During a briefing last week, the chief medical adviser at Health Canada said that while the first dose of Moderna's vaccine imparts about 80 per cent immunity, it is uncertain how long that immunity would last.
"So we would recommend that the second dose be given," said Dr. Supriya Sharma, adding that provinces would also need to factor in the reliability of the supply chain when deciding how doses should be administered in the coming months.
And speaking to CBC News on Dec. 23, the general manager of Moderna Canada rejected the idea.
"The two doses are necessary and very important to achieve full immunity and maintain that," said Patricia Gauthier.
"It's really important that everybody gets the two doses, four weeks apart."
As of this morning, Ontario has used more than 14,000 of the 90,000 doses included in the initial shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The pace is considerably behind those of other provinces.
Some health experts have also criticized the province for scaling back its vaccination program over the holidays.
Hillier said today that it was a "mistake" to do so, and that doses will be administered seven days a week moving forward.
"We can't do it any faster," he said. "We want to make sure that we get it right, and not at the expense of time, but we want to make sure we get it right."
WATCH | Retired general Rick Hillier apologizes for pause in vaccination program:
B.C. health officer approves of possibility
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said the possibility of providing Moderna's vaccine as a single dose, rather than two, would "absolutely" be helpful to get the most of the vaccine supply.
"It would be just wonderful if people only needed a single dose," she told reporters in Victoria. "That would make our lives so much easier."
Henry said experts around the world are looking at data about vaccine efficacy after just the first dose, but right now it is a two-dose program.
Record-high new cases
Meanwhile, the record 2,553 cases reported this morning include 895 in Toronto, 496 in Peel Region, 147 in Windsor-Essex, 144 in Hamilton and 142 in York Region.
Other public health units that saw double-digit increases were:
Simcoe Muskoka: 34.
Eastern Ontario: 16.
Brant County: 11.
[Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, because local units report figures at different times.]
Combined, the new cases bring the seven-day average to 2,236. Ontario has seen daily case counts above 2,000 since Dec. 15. In that same time, there have been an average of 32 deaths per day of people with COVID-19, according to Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health.
In the last 24 hours, Ontario's network of labs processed 34,112 test samples for the novel coronavirus and reported a test positivity rate of 9.7 per cent, a new high for the pandemic. It follows a reported positivity rate of 8.6 per cent the day before, which was the previous record-high. Another 32,850 tests are in the queue to be completed.
There are 864 people in Ontario hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19, though some hospitals didn't submit data and therefore that figure could be an underrepresentation of the actual total. Of those, 304 are being treated in intensive care, the most at any time during the pandemic, and 207 require a ventilator to breathe.