MONTREAL — Quebec will wait on advice from its public health director before expanding access to COVID-19 booster vaccines, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Friday.
Earlier in the day, the federal government's advisory committee on vaccination said it strongly recommended provinces offer COVID-19 booster doses to people 50 and older, adding that all adults over 18 would benefit from one. Ontario said Thursday it would expand third-dose eligibility to everyone 50 and up in mid-December, while British Columbia has announced a plan to give third doses to all residents 12 and over by May 2022.
In Quebec, however, booster doses are only available to people over 70, to people with weakened immune systems and to people who had received two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Speaking to reporters in Quebec City, Dubé said he expected a decision on boosters from public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda next week.
"He has made some very good calls during those tough decisions," Dubé said, adding that Quebec's vaccination program has broken with federal guidelines in the past, including when it chose a longer interval between first and second doses than was recommended by vaccine manufacturers and Ottawa. Quebec's policy was later adopted by the federal government.
Quebec's immunization committee has submitted its recommendations regarding booster doses to the Health Department, but they haven't been made public, according to the province's public health institute.
Benoit Barbeau, a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal who studies virology, said that while it's clear certain people could benefit from third doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, he's not convinced they should be given to everyone. Barbeau said it's unclear younger people who have received two doses of vaccine are developing severe cases of COVID-19.
"That's the reason the vaccines were created — the way they were evaluated was to make sure that people who are vaccinated are not showing severe symptoms," he said in an interview Friday. "There's still a very good protection, especially for younger adults."
Now that the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus has been detected in Canada, Barbeau said it might be better to wait and see whether a new vaccine formulation, adapted to that variant, would offer more protection than a third dose of the current COVID-19 mRNA vaccines.
While Barbeau said he doesn't think there's any risk of giving people additional doses of vaccine, he said he worries about the cost and about whether the administration of third doses will divert vaccines away from countries where few people are vaccinated and where new variants are emerging.
"We definitely need to look more into vaccinating the world instead of capitalizing on repeated doses in a short timespan for the entire population of a certain number of countries because they're wealthy enough," he said.
But Dr. André Veillette, an immunologist at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, said he thinks Quebec should urgently make third doses available to everyone 50 and over and to health-care workers. The province should also start preparing to offer them to all adults, he said.
"I think we need to give this third dose definitely to health-care workers, definitely to 50-year-olds and over, and I think at some point it's going to be for everybody," he said in an interview Friday.
After five to six months, antibody levels decline significantly, he said, adding that the vaccine still provides a good level of protection against serious illness.
Studies show a third dose increases the recipient's antibody levels by 25 to 50 times, he said. That would reduce the number of infections "dramatically," Veillette said, adding that it would also reduce hospitalizations.
"I think the goal is to prevent people from getting sick, even if they're sick at home," he said. "We're in a pandemic; we want to stop the virus — every infected person counts."
Earlier Friday, Quebec reported 1,355 new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths linked to the novel coronavirus. It was the highest number of new daily cases in the province since April 16, when officials reported 1,537 cases. The Health Department said 230 people were in hospital, including 57 in intensive care.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press