A new vaccine, with a Vancouver connection, could be available in B.C. in the first quarter of 2021, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday.
However, the province will have to overcome a significant supply-chain challenge to get it distributed — as it must be kept at minus-70 C or lose its effectiveness.
“That is one of the lights at the end of the tunnel,” said Henry, referring to the RNA vaccine — developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE — that is now shown in large-scale trials to protect more than 90 per cent of people from COVID-19.
“I think it’s fantastic. The preliminary analysis that they’ve done on a subset of (volunteers) shows that there’s good effect from the vaccine. So that’s great news. And that means that we’re on track for potentially having this vaccine available, both around the world, but here in Canada and in B.C., in the first quarter of 2021.”
Henry warned, though, that distributing the vaccine — developed using biotechnology from Vancouver company Acuitas Therapeutics — would be challenging because there were not a lot of ultralow temperature freezers in B.C. or freezer trucks that could handle the vaccine.
“It means the logistics of getting this vaccine are going to be complicated,” Henry said. “But the B.C. (Centre for Disease Control) has been working with Health Canada and the public health agency, and across this country, to make sure we have the logistics in place to get the vaccine as soon as it’s available and approved for use.”
Dr. Horacio Bach, an expert in vaccines at the University of B.C., said the distribution of deep-frozen vaccines around the world was a big issue.
“You need airplanes with minus-70 containers, and then they have to be kept that cold at the airport and then distributed say to Kelowna, and then from there. It’s a huge problem,” Bach said.
A freezer in a domestic fridge keeps a temperature of around minus-20 C.
Health Canada has deals in place to buy five potential COVID-19 vaccines — from Pfizer, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — that would see millions of doses available for Canadians free of charge once approved.
Monday’s vaccine announcement came as B.C. reported another bad day on the COVID-19 front. There were 998 cases of the virus reported between noon Saturday and noon Monday, and five deaths.
Henry said there were 4,891 active cases of the disease, of which 133 were in hospital, including 43 in intensive care. There are 9,179 people in self-isolation after being potentially exposed to the disease.
The majority of cases continues to be in the Fraser Health region that covers 1.8 million people.
Henry said there were 37 active outbreaks in long-term care facilities, including two reported over the past two days. Of those outbreaks, 32 were in long-term care facilities. So far, 535 staff members at long-term care facilities have caught the disease. The COVID-19 death toll in B.C. is 281.
There were no community outbreaks reported over the past two days, and several school exposures were reported.
On Saturday, Henry revealed a range of new public health orders aimed at keeping the record case numbers down — banning social gatherings indoors and shuttering gyms and spin and yoga classes until new guidelines were developed. Henry said this was needed to break the two-week COVID-19 transmission cycle. She said the new orders wouldn’t be imposed on schools, which she wants to remain open during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has granted an emergency-use authorization for an antibody drug to treat COVID-19 that has been developed by Vancouver company AbCellera in partnership with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. The drug — that identifies immune cells that can be replicated and used to attack COVID-19 infections — will be used to treat mild-to-moderate cases of the disease.
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