The head of Manitoba’s vaccine implementation task force is working to dispel doubts about the effectiveness and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, calling the next few months critical in the province’s campaign to vaccinate against the virus.
Dr. Joss Reimer says she can understand why some may have questions about how quickly the vaccines were developed and approved for use.
“The suspicion behind both of these is that the speed in which this happened means that perhaps steps were skipped, and that somehow the vaccine must not be safe or it’s untested,” she said at a Wednesday press conference.
“It’s easy to see why people wonder about this, because in other situations these developments can and do take years.
“Fortunately, scientists and other experts around the world were not starting from scratch.”
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Reimer said while the coronavirus that’s led to the current pandemic is new, there are hundreds of other variations of coronavirus health officials have already dealt with, meaning scientists were ahead of the game when it came to figuring out what they were looking at with COVID-19.
“We’ve studied them, we’ve responded to serious worldwide emergencies linked to them, like the SARS pandemic, for example,” she explained.
“So in this case, it only took two weeks from when COVID-19 was first detected to map the entire genome of the virus — and that told us what kind of vaccine we we would need in order to stop the virus.”
From there, Reimer said there was a worldwide push to start work on vaccines, with multiple companies and countries working on different options at the same time, to help make sure ones that worked were found quickly.
“The larger pool means the odds were better that some of them would prove to be effective,” she said.
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When potential vaccines were identified — a process Reimer says was helped along by previous work already done on mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Modnera, and viral vector vaccines like AstraZeneca — clinical trials were started, just as they would have for any other vaccine.
But what changed in this case, Reimer said, was the pace of the trials, which came together more quickly, in part because finding participants is easier during a pandemic.
“Volunteers were very eager to take part all around the world,” she said. “It was also much easier to study how well the vaccine protected against the virus. because there was so much virus present around the world.
“Some (vaccines) made it through that process. Many others did not.”
Lastly, Reimer addressed how quickly the vaccines were approved for use by Health Canada, a process that, as it normally would, saw three more trials completed in ever-widening phases, the first looking at safety, then immune response, and finally vaccine effectiveness.
While the science didn’t change for the approval process of the COVID-19 vaccine, Reimer says government’s administrative processes did.
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“Normally, Health Canada requires companies to submit their data from phase one, two and three at the same time for evaluation. In this case, Health Canada reviewed each phase of the trial as it was completed,” she explained.
“So while the same review occurred, it meant that less time was required at the end of the phase three trial in order to get approval, because phase one and two had already been reviewed.”
The process was even faster because Health Canada prioritized the vaccines over everything else that otherwise would have been in the queue, Reimer said.
And as is the case for all vaccines approved for use in Canada, Reimer said the evaluation process doesn’t stop after approval — meaning vaccine guidelines and usage recommendations can still change if problems are found in real time.
Reimer took the time to go through how the COVID-19 vaccines were developed and approved as officials said Wednesday Manitoba’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines is set to exceed demand on a daily basis.
Johanu Botha, co-lead of the provincial vaccination team, said shipments from the federal government continue to increase, but demand for shots shows signs of dropping with slightly more than half of eligible Manitobans now fully immunized.
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According to a provincial site tracking vaccinations, 75.3 per cent of eligible Manitobans 12 and up have gotten one shot, and 52.8 of those eligible have gotten two.
Reimer and Botha said the effort now is to persuade more people who might otherwise be hesitant, to get a dose.
“The next few months will be critical as we deliver the final thousands of doses to 10, 50, 100 Manitobans at a time,” she said.
“The science behind these vaccines is solid, it’s built on technology that we know and that we understand.”
— with files from The Canadian Press
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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