Canada has as of December 27th, identified and confirmed four cases of the coronavirus variant that has been sweeping through Britain. The variant currently being identified as B.1.1.7 by some experts is not the first variant to be identified but it is proving to be the most transmissible. The new variant was first seen in Britain in September. By the second week of December, 62% of confirmed COVID-19 cases were from the new variant whereas three weeks earlier it was linked to only 28% of cases. Scientists estimate that it is 40 to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original virus, which means it is spreading faster and increasing the risk that it will also spread swiftly into other countries.
As early as April 2020, researchers in Sweden found a strain of the virus which had genetic changes which made it roughly twice as infectious as the original strain. Now several variations of the modified strain have shown up in in various countries around the world. Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine noted, “The new B.1.1.7 …still appears to have all the human lethality that the original had but with an increased ability to transmit.” Officials with the World Health Organization however, claim there is no evidence that the mutated variant of the of the virus will cause more serious consequences for those who contract it, the problem lies in the ease of transmission. As individuals in our own local area can attest, it is possible to contract the original virus even while practicing all the recommended safety measures and we have all seen people are taking more chances now than in the spring as pandemic fatigue settles in.
Scientists agree however that there is no evidence that this new variant will be immune to the vaccines currently being rolled out. Spokespeople with Moderna and BioNTech who partnered with Pfizer on their vaccine, stated they expect the immunity induced by their vaccines to be protective against the new variant as well. Moderna went on to say that had already run tests of the vaccine against many of the previous variants of the virus and the vaccine proved to be equally effective. In the off chance this variant or a future one presents an “unexpected challenge”, developers of the mRNA vaccine can quickly re-engineer the genetic material in it to match that of the mutated protein in a new variant within a matter of weeks.
On December 23rd Health Canada approved the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine developed by Massachusetts-based Moderna and on Christmas Eve a FedEx flight landed in Toronto bearing the first of the up to 168,000 doses destined to arrive before the end of 2020. Since health officials made the decision to not send the Pfizer vaccine to Northern Canada due to the lack of ultra-cold storage capabilities it is expected that the North will receive more than its per capita share of the Moderna vaccine. In mid-December the Canadian Armed Forces delivered five freezers to the territories that can keep the Moderna vaccine stable at -20 C. Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief officer of public health stated, “With the unique situation in the North, the isolated communities, lack of access to let’s say tertiary health-care facilities and so on, the planning sort of assumption has been to really deliver enough vaccine to be able to cover 75% of their population, so that we’re not making multiple trips to a small community.” Maj. Gen. Dany Fortin added that shipments of the vaccine are expected to start arriving in the territories beginning on Monday Dec. 28th.
Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at McMaster University, in an interview with CTV, called the Moderna vaccine a “game-changer” and stated “the Moderna is probably going to be the workhorse vaccine”. Health-care workers will be able to deliver the vaccine at bedsides in long-term care homes and the immunization task force will be able to deliver to small rural hospitals and remote northern regions unable to facilitate the storage requirements of the Pfizer vaccine. More Canadians, he added, are likely to get the Moderna than the Pfizer vaccine. With 40 million doses secured of the Moderna vaccine, this goes without saying, but with Canada’s disperse population, logistically there is no other way to get the vaccine administered to as many of the Canadian population as want it.
To further the immunization effort the Canadian government has set up another 56 distribution sites in addition to the 14 already operating, to vaccinate the prioritized groups. Fortin assured that as more is learned of the stability of both vaccines more distribution sites will be established, and the vaccination network will grow. However, it will not happen overnight, and the estimates of the second and third quarter of 2021 arriving before the country sees a mass vaccination of the general public are still in place. As manufacturers ramp up their production facilities more vaccines will be available with each batch, but people need to remember no one country will get all of its order of vaccine filled before the manufacturers begin on another. The distribution of vaccines will be fair and equitable across the globe and Canada is and will continue to receive its fair share, but it will take time.
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder