The Vaccine in 600 Words

On Wednesday, we became the third country in the world with an approved COVID-19 vaccine, behind only Britain and – for future trivia contests – Bahrain.

After receiving Health Canada approval in record time, the vaccine by Pfizer/BioNTech was on a plane from Belgium today and will be in the arms of a small number of Canadians by Tuesday. Ontario has two of the initial 14 distribution centres, one of them in Toronto at UHN.

A second vaccine by Moderna, using the same technology as Pfizer and also showing a remarkably high 95% effectiveness in clinical trials, is expected to be approved soon. Both are delivered in two doses, with Pfizer requiring a second shot 21 days after the first. Maximum immunity is achieved a week after that.

The Government of Canada pre-ordered the vaccines and is providing them to Canadians at no cost. Provincial governments are in charge of distribution.

Timelines and Who Gets Vaccinated First

It is expected that 125,000 Canadians will be vaccinated by the end of the year and some three million by the end of March.

Federal guidelines call for initial doses to go to residents and staff of seniors’ homes, adults over 70 starting with the oldest, health care workers, and adults in Indigenous communities. Ontario is developing its own detailed plans within those guidelines.

Because the Pfizer vaccine requires ultra-cold storage and then must be used within six hours after it defrosts, vaccinations will be given at central locations. Residents of long term care homes won’t receive theirs until a plan has been developed to get the vaccine to them.

Canada has agreements to purchase vaccines from up to seven companies, using different technologies, once they have Health Canada approval. Two of these have already been delayed in clinical trials.

We hope that more vaccines will be approved in the next few months, some of which may be easier to store and transport. It is not known at this time if these will be as effective as the Pfizer product. More detailed information on how long it will take to vaccinate the larger population won’t be available until we know how many vaccines are approved by Health Canada and how quickly these can be produced and distributed.

In general, it is expected that more of the Pfizer vaccine and likely others will be available to the general public by April. But it may take until the fall of 2021 or the end of the year to cover the entire population. Vaccines are voluntary but Ontario has talked about “immunity passports” which may be required for some activities such as plane travel or working in a long-term care home.

Still Unknown

Information about the vaccine is based on a relatively short clinical trial, leaving a number of questions that won’t be answered for months, simply because not enough time has passed to collect the data that would answer them.

How long will immunization last? Are people who receive the vaccine still able to transmit the virus even though they don’t get sick? Are there any long-term effects?

How soon we will be able to get back to some semblance of our everyday lives is still just a guess, with many experts predicting September or later. A lot will depend on the availability of vaccines, their effectiveness, our ability to handle the logistics of distribution, and the percentage of the population who choose to get vaccinated.

For some form of “herd immunity” to take effect, it is generally thought that 70% of the population needs to have been vaccinated. Even past that point, some form of mask use and social distancing may still be necessary, especially indoors.

Still, this week’s news calls for some joyous dancing accompanied by an internationally-popular song asking a higher power to protect us. – John