Ontario expecting shorter timeline for COVID-19 vaccine rollout; next steps in vaccination plan to be revealed Friday
Published Thursday, March 4, 2021 11:39AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, March 4, 2021 4:36PM EST
Health Minister Christine Elliott says that with the approval of a new COVID-19 vaccine in Canada and new guidelines for administering second doses, Ontario is “recalibrating” its timeline for rolling out vaccines and may be able to get more people their first dose sooner than initially thought.
“We were looking at the end of the summer, probably into perhaps September,” Elliott told reporters Thursday. “I think it's fair to say that we will be able to shorten that timeline, given the new volumes of vaccines coming in with AstraZeneca, and the extension of the first and second doses for both Pfizer and Moderna, meaning we can get more first dose into more arms faster.”
Last week, Health Canada rubber-stamped the AstraZeneca vaccine, the third COVID-19 vaccine that has now been approved for use in the country. On Wednesday, a national panel of vaccine experts also recommended extending the interval between first and second vaccine doses to four months, based on data showing good protection after just a single dose.
While it looks like the province’s vaccination program may proceed more quickly than first thought because of the two developments, Elliott said it is too soon to set a new target date.
“We expect that our timelines will be reduced overall, but I can't give you a specific date right now,” she said.
The provincial government is expected to announce the next steps of its vaccination plan on Friday, CTV News has learned.
Speaking to CP24 on Thursday morning, infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who is also a member of the province’s 10-person vaccine distribution task force, said recent developments indicate that Canada will be able to significantly speed up its timeline for vaccinating members of the general population.
“I think it is very, very, very likely that most Canadians will be able to have a vaccine by, just guessing here, but could be the early part of the summer,” he said Thursday.
The federal government previously said that all Canadians who want a vaccine should be able to receive one by late September.
Bogoch noted that after a sluggish start to vaccine shipments, more doses are finally starting to arrive in Canada.
“The real inflection point is as March turns into April. You are going to start to see the mass vaccine clinics expand, and then of course the massive expansion of the vaccines going into pharmacies,” he said.
“That giant shift really is at the tail end of March.”
To date, Ontario has administered 784,828 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and about 268,118 of the province’s 14 million residents have received two doses for full immunization.
Ontario is expecting to receive approximately 700,000 more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine over the next four weeks. While provincial allocations for the Moderna vaccine have not been updated on the federal government’s website, the company previously promised to deliver 1.3 million doses to Canada in the month of March.
At least 113,000 AstraZeneca doses manufactured in India are destined for Ontario after arriving in Canada this week.
Johnson and Johnson decision expected within a week
“We are actually starting to see a significant number of vaccines coming to the country, especially with AstraZeneca coming in. We are getting half a million doses now and much more of that in the coming weeks,” Bogoch said.
“If you look in the crystal ball, it is likely that we'll have (the) Johnson & Johnson (COVID-19 vaccine) and even with some of the delays that Johnson & Johnson is having in manufacturing, we are seeing other indications that they will be able to ramp up manufacturing… At the end of the day, it just points to much shorter timelines for Canadians.”
Health Canada's Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Supriya Sharma said Thursday that a decision on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will likely be made within the next week.
“The review of the Johnson & Johnson submission is going very well. It is progressing and we are expecting to have that completed and a decision in the next few days. I would say within the next seven days or so," she told reporters.
If approved, Canada is expecting to receive a million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by the end of September, however the delivery schedule is still unclear. On Thursday, federal officials said shipments could begin sometime in the second quarter of the year.
More encouraging news came earlier this week when the panel of experts who provide advice to Ottawa on vaccinations said second doses of COVID-19 vaccines can now be administered up to four months after the first dose is given, allowing vaccines to flow to more members of the population sooner.
The panel cited emerging clinical evidence from the U.S., Israel and the UK that indicated the first dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines provides 90 per cent or better protection from coronavirus infection for much longer than initially thought.
The Ford government has signalled that it plans to accept that recommendation and delay second doses beyond the current 28-day timeframe.
“Most places in Canada will likely be spacing out the doses between dose one and dose two by anywhere from three to four months,” Bogoch said. “You can just vaccinate way more people in a shorter period of time.”
AstraZeneca to be used in pharmacy pilot starting next week
While some Ontario municipalities have begun to vaccinate people over the age of 80 who are living in the community, the province’s largest city has not yet been able to begin vaccinating members of the general population.
Toronto’s mayor has said that the city is still focused on trying to vaccinate other priority populations, including frontline health-care workers.
In the meantime, Elliott confirmed Thursday that the AstraZeneca vaccine will be used in a pilot project starting next week that will see vaccines distributed through pharmacies in three health units, including Toronto.
The storage requirements for the vaccine are simpler, making it easier to distribute through remote locations such as pharmacies.
“It can be moved more easily. It doesn't have the same kind of temperature requirements that the Pfizer vaccine has and to a lesser extent Moderna,” Elliott told reporters. “I would say that in addition to pharmacies, you may also see it in primary care centres, and perhaps even in larger vaccination clinics.”
Ontario has said that keeping in line with advice from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), it will only distribute the Astra Zeneca vaccine to those under 65 years of age.
Infection-prevention measures still important in the meantime
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams called the possible shortening of the vaccination timeline “good news” Thursday.
“This means we can accelerate faster, and we have some advise on timelines that we might be able to move up on the previous predictions of early fall to complete, we may have it even sooner than we had anticipated, and this is good news for all,” he said.
However he cautioned that people still need to stick to public health advice while the vaccine rollout is underway, especially with the more contagious variants of the virus on the loose in the province.
“We still have to hold the other ones down while we undertake this task,” he said. “So our task of maintaining our distancing, masking, staying home when sick, getting tests when we need to get tested, keep to your household, stay home if you do not need to (go out), limit your activities, even if you are in a zone within the framework that allows you to access those activities.”