The first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine will be available in B.C. next week, health officials said Wednesday, though northern B.C. will remain on the waiting list until the new year.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says just under 4,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be delivered next week to two sites in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser health regions next week, with “tens of thousands” to arrive in subsequent weeks and into the new year.
“Today is actually an incredibly important and positive day,” Henry said.
Henry said there will be “intense focus” to immunize staff and residents in long-term care, with those working in acute care, COVID patient units, and ERs also among those first to be immunized.
Henry said as more doses arrive, immunizations will be expanded to community seniors over age of 80, those at risk because of a health condition, and other vulnerable populations, including the homeless and remote First Nations communities.
Asked if it might not create some resentment to be vaccinating homeless people over front-line workers, like teachers, Henry said that is to be expected.
"I expect everybody is going to be saying, 'Where am I on the list?'" Henry said.
In other settings, such as schools, she said it is easier to take precautions that prevent the spread of the virus. It is much more difficult to have controls in place with homeless people, many of whom often have underlying illnesses that makes them more vulnerable to infection.
Later in March and April, the next in line for vaccinations will be other front-line workers: paramedics, firefighters, workers in processing plants, grocery store workers and teachers, Henry said.
The province is receiving a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, approved by Health Canada Wednesday.
While the elderly in long-term care homes are a priority population vaccination, they will not be among the first to receive one, due to the nature of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, which is fussy and fragile and requires specialized storage at sub-zero temperatures. It can therefore not be readily brought into care homes.
Elderly residents of long-term care homes will therefore have to wait for Health Canada to approve a vaccine from Moderna, which can be more easily transported and stored.
Because the Pfizer vaccine must be kept at -80 C while being transported, Henry said two trays each holding 975 doses will be delivered to each of the Lower Mainland sites, and that the focus will initially be on healthcare workers who are able to come to the sites.
Henry said it may be impossible to deliver the Pfizer vaccine to long-term care homes "at least for the next few weeks" and may leave that to the Moderna vaccine, which can be shipped in regular freezers and remain stable for about a week at fridge temperature.
Henry said both vaccines are particular groundbreaking because they use new technology called “messenger RNA”, and contain the genetic coding material for the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.
“That protein then is produced by our cells and our immune system responds to that to develop antibodies,” she said. “Then, if we’re exposed to the virus, we have those antibodies that attack it and protect us from becoming ill. That’s how this vaccine works.
“It’s synthetic genetic material, which means that it can be manufactured in large amounts, very quickly,” Henry added.
The type of vaccine has been worked on for decades for other viruses including Zika, influenza, and rabies, but this is the first time it’s been manufactured and shown to work, Henry said. The Moderna vaccine is next in line for federal approval.
Close to 400,000 will be immunized between now and March, Henry said, less than 10 per cent of B.C.'s population.
“That is not enough to stop this pandemic. It’s not enough to prevent transmission in our communities,” Henry said.
Henry said it will take 60 to 70% of the population to be immunized before social distancing rules can be relaxed.
She expected immunization to ramp up “rapidly” in spring - with vaccines delivered through pharmacies, family doctors, and public health units. Those would be more traditional “kill vaccines” still in development, and which will be easier to transport and store, she said.
She also cautioned that it's not yet known how long protection from the virus will last, although so far the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been "very highly effective."
“We are going to have a good summer I hope," she said.
Henry said the Pfizer vaccine is not recommended for people under 16, who are “relatively protected”, she said.
The vaccine also isn’t recommended for women who are pregnant. “We don’t know how it works in pregnant women,” she said.
Nor is the vaccine recommended for people with compromised immune systems, whether from an autoimmune disorder or things like cancer treatment, she said.
“With these new vaccines we don’t know how safe they are and how effective they will be in people who are immune comprised. That is a challenge for us,” Henry said.
"We expect that some of the more traditional vaccines that will be available later in the spring will be able to be used in immunocompromised people and they will be a priority."
The province has identified 30 sites to receive the vaccines, with nine sites ready in all health regions by the first week of January, Henry said.
Henry would not give more details about where the vaccine clinics will be located. She said the province needs to take precautions to handle the vaccine safely, and carry out immunization clinics safely for patients.
"We don’t want to be doing that under the glare of media at this point,” Henry said.
“Quite frankly we have credible information from sources nationally and internationally that there's people who are targeting vaccines,” she added. “So we are going to be a little circumspect early on and make sure that we’re able to best protect the precious vaccine that we have and safely administer it to people.”
Henry said health authorities will determine the sequencing of their respective vaccine rollouts.
A Northern Health spokesperson said that work is underway and not finalized yet.
Henry reported 619 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, 27 in the Northern Health region.
— with files from Matt Preprost, Mark Nielsen, Nelson Bennett
Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at firstname.lastname@example.org.