The COVID-19 case projections this week have been bleak. There’s no other way to say it. But at least in a tough week we also got a strong glimmer of hope. On Monday, the drug company Pfizer released early data on a COVID-19 vaccine under development showing that it may be up to 90% effective. Though the vaccine remains several weeks away from completing its final phase of clinical trials, and with data yet to be peer-reviewed, the results are nevertheless a very encouraging sign.
The Pfizer vaccine is one of a dozen currently in late-stage testing globally, and one that Canada has pre-ordered in the amount of 20 million doses, or enough to immunize up to 10 million people. Because of the massive logistical effort that will be involved in rolling out such a large immunization effort quickly, it’s time for all three levels of government to coordinate how to effectively work together once one (or several) drugs have been proven safe and effective.
Health Canada will review all clinical research before approving a vaccine for use and will be responsible for the country’s overall procurement strategy. The National Advisory Commission on Immunization (NACI) will provide guidance on which segments of the population should be prioritized for vaccination.
It is hoped that by early 2021, provinces will be given the go ahead to start rolling out an immunization strategy. In some cases, such as with the Pfizer vaccine, there are logistical challenges to overcome. Their particular vaccine requires 2 doses spread apart several weeks and must be stored at special cold temperatures, making it impractical for doctors’ offices or pharmacies. Toronto Public Health is preparing to be called upon to operate special clinics to meet these needs.
The City of Toronto has formed a COVID-19 Immunization Task Force as part of its pandemic response and recovery efforts. Staff across multiple divisions are working to ensure that the City is ready as soon as a vaccine is ready for distribution. The City is also providing recommendations on how vaccinations would be prioritized, starting with front-line medical workers, then focusing on vulnerable populations, and focusing on areas where there is a clear geographic burden. These recommendations will be discussed at the Board of Health on Monday.
Even when an immunization effort is underway, it’s going to be a long process, both for companies to manufacture enough doses as are required, and for governments to effectively get them out. It will also require cooperation from members of the public to participate fully in the process. For the immediate future, distancing, hand washing, masks and, other public health measures are going to remain critical. It is hoped that as large segments of the population are vaccinated, the spread of the virus may be slowed enough that we can really start getting back to normal. We’re not quite there yet. But in a week of bad news, there are still reasons to be optimistic.