A vial of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a family doctor office, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Paris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP -Christophe Ena

Trudeau ‘optimistic’ that timeline for rollout of COVID vaccines can be accelerated

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed optimism Wednesday that his government’s timeline for vaccinating Canadians against COVID-19 could be accelerated as more shots are approved and guidelines for administering them evolve.

The federal government’s plan to have doses administered to all Canadians who want one by the end of September didn’t factor in the arrival of new vaccines such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot, Trudeau said in a news conference.

And despite delays in the delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine last month, Canada is now “fully back on track and even ahead of schedule” when it comes to its supply of the various drugs, he said, noting the country should receive more than the six million doses of COVID-19 vaccines it initially expected to get by the end of March.

“The projections we’ve had for many, many months certainly hold, but we’re also very optimistic that they’re going to be able to be moved forward if, indeed, all the vaccines that we’ve contracted for are able to be manufactured and shipped in the right ways,” the prime minister said.

Any change in the public health guidance regarding the time allowed between the first and second doses of a vaccine could also affect Canada’s rollout, Trudeau said.

“We’re seeing some of the science shift, some proposals put forward which are very, very interesting, which could result in rapider timelines, but every step of the way we’re going to be informed by the experts, by the science,” he said.

Newfoundland and Labrador said Wednesday it is extending the interval between the first and second doses to four months, days after health officials in British Columbia announced they were doing so. Ontario has said it is weighing a similar move but seeking advice from the federal government.

Meanwhile, the first 500,000 doses of the recently approved Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in Canada on Wednesday, though confusion persists over who should get them.

The vaccine, manufactured at the Serum Institute of India, is the third COVID-19 shot approved for use in Canada.

Health Canada last week authorized its use for all adult Canadians but the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended Tuesday that it not be administered to people 65 years of age or older.

The committee said there is limited data from clinical trials about how effective the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is for seniors and recommends that they be given priority for the two other vaccines — Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — already greenlighted for use in Canada.

Both Health Canada and the committee stress no safety concerns have arisen in the clinical studies or among the millions of seniors who have received the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in other countries.

Indeed, Dr. Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser at Health Canada, insists there’s no real contradiction between what her department and the advisory committee are saying: both agree that where possible, it’s preferable to give seniors the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which have proven in clinical trials to be more effective in guarding older people against COVID-19.

That said, Sharma said seniors shouldn’t wait for a Pfizer or Moderna shot if they can get an Oxford-AstraZeneca jab sooner.

Real-world evidence, she said, shows the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective at preventing serious cases of COVID-19, hospitalizations and deaths.

Some provinces, including Alberta, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, plan to follow the advisory committee’s advice and target the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at younger people working in front-line essential services or in high-risk settings like prisons.

On Wednesday, the Ontario government said it will give the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot to residents aged 60 to 64. The drug will not be doled out through mass immunization clinics but rather through a “different pathway,” Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said. Details of the program were not released.

Other provinces, including Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, are still mulling over the issue.

Ottawa also confirmed Wednesday it is extending three federal support programs meant to lessen the economic impact of COVID-19 on residents and business owners until June.

The federal wage subsidy, rent support and lockdown programs will carry on with the same level of aid, the government said.

In addition to Wednesday’s shipment of Oxford-AstraZeneca doses, Canada is also scheduled to receive 444,600 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week.

With Oxford-AstraZeneca added to Canada’s vaccine arsenal, the country is on track to receive a total of 6.5 million vaccine doses by the end of this month — half a million more than originally expected.

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