The first cohort of British Columbians seeking the next wave of booster shots against COVID-19 could be getting their latest jabs in just a few days.
Provincial officials confirmed Tuesday 109,300 shots of Moderna Inc.’s bivalent vaccine are due to arrive by the end of the week. Booster invites for prioritized groups such as health-care workers and high-risk individuals will begin as soon as those doses arrive in the province.
“We were actually hoping we can say today it’s arrived in British Columbia – the first tranche – but it’s not quite there,” Penny Ballem, executive lead of B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout, said during Tuesday’s announcement.
These bivalent vaccines feature a mix of vaccines, similar to how flu vaccines can often include three or four combinations of vaccines.
In this case, the bivalent vaccine is meant to offer protection against the original COVID-19 virus as well as the more contagious Omicron variant.
This particular bivalent shot carries the spike protein for the BA.1 subvariant of Omicron rather than the circulating BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants that many Americans are receiving as part of that country’s fall booster campaign (the spike protein is what triggers an immune response in recipients).
Speaking on background during a technical briefing, a provincial health official said the spike protein from the BA.1 subvariant still provides a good boost of protection against infection as we all as protection against serious illness from COVID-19. The official went on to state more data is needed to determine if the Moderna and Pfizer Inc. vaccines featuring the BA.4 or BA.5 spike proteins are more effective.
Those particular vaccines have not been approved by Health Canada, whereas the BA.1 vaccine from Moderna was approved by regulators Sept. 1.
The booster vaccines will be administered starting at 517 pharmacies across the province in the coming days, while regional health authorities will begin carrying out vaccinations Sept. 19. Health authorities are responsible for hard-to-reach populations, such as the homeless and those in correctional facilities.
About 1,100 pharmacies are expected to participate at the peak of this campaign, while the province expects pharmacies will be solely responsible for administration of the booster shots within 10-12 weeks as demand for the new jabs wanes.
This latest booster campaign follows a spring rollout of booster shots for those considered to be most at risk and people ages 70 and older. This will be the fourth shot for the broader population of British Columbians who have been receiving COVID-19 vaccinations since their initial rollout more than 18 months ago.
“If you just had your booster, it’s OK to wait three to six months to get another one,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
Invites for the fall campaign will be delivered based on the interval since someone’s last dose – a recommended six months or more – and the health risks one faces if they are infected. High-risk individuals include those who are immunocompromised, have cancer and are receiving treatment, those with diabetes and those with chronic liver disease. People who are obese, have substance use disorders and are pregnant are also considered to be at a higher risk.
Because most health-care workers received their initial vaccinations and boosters earlier than the general population, they will also be receiving prioritized invites for the latest round of booster shots.
The province expects to send out more than four million invites as part of this fall campaign, when 280,000 jabs will be administered weekly at maximum capacity.
In addition to the 109,300 booster shots set to be delivered to B.C. this week, another 306,400 are due to arrive next week as the campaign ramps up. Provincial officials estimate 405,000 will arrive the week of Sept. 19, just as regional health authorities roll out their own efforts to supplement vaccinations at pharmacies.
Health Canada has not approved Pfizer’s own bivalent vaccine. But if given a green light from regulators, shipments could start Sept. 19, with 258,900 booster shots arriving that week and the same number arriving the week after.
By early October, the province expects to be able to administer COVID-19 boosters and flu shots simultaneously.
All British Columbians 18 and older are eligible for the bivalent vaccine, as well as youths 12-17 who fall into the at-risk categories noted above.
Henry said “some schools” will offer immunizations to young people but it will be up to local public health officials to determine what strategies work best.
To date, just over 17,000 children between the ages of six months and four years old have received recently approved doses for that age group. Meanwhile, 46.5 per cent of B.C.’s 349,320 children ages 5-11 have received a second dose.
“That is a concern for us,” Henry said, referring to the relatively low number of young children who have received doses. “Now we need to say, ‘Yes, even if you’ve had an infection, you need to get that … first or second or third dose of vaccine. And now’s the time to do it because it’s going to give you that stronger, longer-lasting protection in that age group.’”
A total of 12 million doses have been administered in B.C. since the COVID-19 vaccination program began more than 18 months ago.
Invites will be sent out to British Columbians’ emails or mobile numbers via the province’s Get Vaccinated BC system.