Ontario is poised to proceed with second doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, the use of which was put on hold last week over concerns about an increase in rare blood clots after first shots, the Star has learned.
An announcement is coming “within days,” a senior government source said as thousands of doses are running up against a May 31 expiry date.
Health Minister Christine Elliott signalled Wednesday that 45,000 remaining doses of the AstraZeneca and related Covishield vaccines that are on hand in pharmacies and central storage are ready to go.
“Nothing will be wasted,” she said in the legislature as questions swirled about how doses will get into arms before the vaccines become stale-dated — raising the prospect that some people could get second AstraZeneca shots before the 16-week interval imposed earlier this year.
Details are coming “well in advance,” Elliott added, noting statistics from the United Kingdom, where the AstraZeneca vaccine has been used widely, show “much less” risk of blood clots after a second shot.
Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Williams, has estimated that risk at one in a million, and stressed that recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine will likely have the option of getting vaccines made by Pfizer or Moderna — which are made using a different technology—for their booster shots. The province is awaiting advice from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization on mixing vaccines.
Opposition parties and those who received doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been pressing for information on the plan for second doses as the expiry deadline and the 16-week interval between shots looms.
“With the clock ticking, there needs to be a decision made,” said New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, adding it would “devastating” if any doses are allowed to expire.
Horwath, Elliott, Premier Doug Ford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Toronto Mayor John Tory are among those who have been given the AstraZeneca or Covishield vaccines.
It’s been 10 weeks since AstraZeneca vaccinations were first offered in Ontario. Its manufacturer says the best interval after which to give the required booster shot is 12 weeks.
A leading physician, researcher and Oxford University professor of medicine who oversaw the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine warned that the increasing incidence of variants — particularly the one first discovered in India and now taking deeper hold in Britain — makes it imperative to proceed.
“At my last look, you guys are 3.6 per cent vaccinated with two doses, so just wait for the (B.1.617 variant) to rip through the Canadian population, and then the problems you’ve had with these very rare clotting events will look pretty insignificant,” Sir John Bell told CTV’s “Question Period” on Sunday.
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“Unless you’ve got two doses of mRNA vaccine sitting in a back room, you need to get on and vaccinate people,” Bell said.
“All this messing around is going to cost lives. This is a public health decision. It’s not, you know, it’s not some academic game.”
The BBC reported Wednesday that the B.1.617 variant has quickly become dominant in parts of northwest England, and could be more transmissible than the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the U.K. last fall, which now accounts for the majority of infections in Ontario.
While still low at just under 3,000 confirmed cases, the variant from India is up 27 per cent from Monday, has doubled in the last week and is raising doubts about easing more restrictions in England next month.
Ford said Monday that Ontario had at least 45 confirmed cases and “likely many more” taking hold in several communities.
“This is deeply troubling, especially in light of the World Health Organization’s recent decision to designate B.1.617 as a variant of global concern,” he said. “We have seen the devastating impact this variant has had on the people of India and the United Kingdom is now concerned that it could derail their reopening plans.”
Ontario pharmacies are gearing up to resume AstraZeneca shots before the May 31 expiry.
“It’s a tight time line,” said Justin Bates of the Ontario Pharmacists Association. “We’re supportive of using those doses.”
Some pharmacies that were given supplies of AstraZeneca vaccine in weeks past, as the age of eligibility was lowered to 40, have run out and would need resupply.
Ontario is awaiting a new shipment of 254,000 doses from the federal government. Almost 854,000 Ontarians have been given first doses of AstraZeneca vaccine.
Shots were paused May 11 after an increase in cases of vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia in the province raised the risk to one in 60,000 from one in 100,000 the previous week, which officials called a “safety signal” warranting a review.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
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