OTTAWA — Canadians will need to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated in large numbers to finally corral COVID-19 before life can return to a semblance of its pre-pandemic state, Canada’s top public health officers said Tuesday.
“Widespread vaccine uptake is the best shot Canadians have in regaining some of what we’ve lost and returning to things that we cherish — things like holding family and friends closely, having community events and living our lives without the fear of contracting the disease,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief medical officer.
Tam and her deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo, offered that assessment one day after the Trudeau government announced the latest instalment in its plan to pre-buy tens of millions of doses of potential vaccines, signing deals with two American firms.
The newest deals will allow Canada to buy as many as 76 million doses of a vaccine candidate from Maryland-based biotech company Novavax, and up to 38 million doses of the vaccine being developed by Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical company Janssen Inc.
Last month, the government signed similar deals with U.S. companies Pfizer and Moderna that would give Canada access to up to 76 million more doses.
Njoo said it is not clear what percentage of Canadians will need to get vaccinated to achieve broad immunity but “the more Canadians that take advantage, the better.”
Both physicians evoked the dark days of forced quarantines, school closures and bans on public gatherings during the measles and polio outbreaks of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
“Most of us are lucky. We have not had to live through these types of measures because of safe and effective vaccines for these diseases,” said Tam.
“What Canada and the world needs to have for the best shot at normalcy is safe and effective vaccines.”
Tam suggested that the threshold for effective immunization is a moving target because understanding the science around COVID-19 is itself a work in progress.
For regulatory purposes, she said, that level has to be continuously evaluated.
“The international consensus is that we should at least look at around the 50 per cent vaccine efficacy mark,” said Tam, adding that there simply isn’t a “yes or no” answer.
More will be known when the data from ongoing Phase 3 clinical trials become available, she said.
“It’s a matter of remaining open to the evidence and being flexible.”
Right now, there appears to be low immunity to the disease around the world, “so getting a high enough vaccine uptake is going to be quite important,” said Tam.
Njoo said a vaccine could be available sometime in 2021, perhaps as early as the spring.
“We’re very optimistic here in Canada and because there are number of vaccine candidates being evaluated,” said Njoo.
“There could be an effective and safe vaccine, perhaps in 2021. We don’t know exactly when. Perhaps in the spring, maybe a little bit later. But it’s a very good thing to stay optimistic.”
As for whether such a vaccine should be mandatory, Njoo said it is better for people to educated about the benefits of immunization rather than have it forced upon them because that’s the best way to increase the number of vaccinations.
“I think it is more important to maybe change people’s attitudes who may be more reticent about getting vaccinated rather than having regulations to make vaccination mandatory,” Njoo said.
While vaccines have never been made compulsory in Canada, the practice in hospitals and long-term care facilities that have had outbreaks of respiratory illnesses has been for health-care workers to be vaccinated before being allowed to return to work, he noted.
As for testing for COVID-19, Njoo said the gold standard remains the so-called PCR test, or polymerase chain reaction testing which relies on a sample collected from a person’s nose or throat.
Asked about the possibility of a home test for the disease, Njoo said: “It’s quite complicated but the bottom line is: we’re open to examining all types of testing technologies because the more tools we have in the toolbox in terms of different types of tests available to use in different types of contexts, the better.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2020.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press