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COVID-19: The Race to Vaccinate

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On the one-year anniversary of the very first COVID-19 case in Canada, BMO guest medical experts, Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer, WebMD and Dr. Howard Ovens, Emergency Physician and Chief Medical Strategy Officer of Sinai Health, joined our client call to discuss vaccine distribution and the challenges to defeating this second wave.

Dr. Whyte noted that, due to the highly transmissible variants of the virus spreading through the population, there is a critical race to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.

“There's some early data that suggests it may be more deadly and that's the reason why we really have to step up our vaccination plan,” Dr. Whyte said. “We've had great development of vaccines, but where we've been lagging is the distribution.”

By the Numbers

There have been approximately 25 million diagnosed cases in the U.S., however, Dr. Whyte noted that that number is likely closer to 50 or 70 million when you count all the people that contracted COVID-19 but never went to get a test. The number of people who have died is around 420,000, most of them in the last several months.

In Canada, about 750,000 total cases have been diagnosed over the past year, Dr. Ovens said, and 19,000 people have died. While this is better than many countries, including the U.S. and U.K., Canada still lags significantly behind countries like New Zealand and Australia in controlling the spread of the virus.

In terms of the vaccines, Dr. Whyte said that 41 million vaccines have been distributed across the U.S., but only 21 million have been given.

“Think about this in another way – about 5.6% of the population has been given one shot,” he said. “Less than 1% have gotten two shots. Remember, we don't get full protection until about a week after the second dose, so we still have a way to go.”

In Canada, about 800,000 of the 1.1 million doses available have been administered.

Getting to Herd Immunity

Dr. Whyte broke down the math for getting to herd immunity in the U.S., which is about 75-80% of the population. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is for people aged 16 and up and the Moderna vaccine is for adults 18 and up.

“That's about 230 million people,” he said. “Right now, we only have vaccines that are two shots. So that's 460 million doses that we need to do here in the United States. So even if you think it's 75% of that population, we're still going to need about 345 million shots.”

Dr. Whyte pointed out that one of the first commitments President Biden made once he was sworn in was to vaccinate 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in office. They are indeed vaccinating a little over 1 million people a day, however, at that rate, he said, it could take a year to hit herd immunity.

“So, we really need to develop a strategy to rev it up. We really need honestly to be getting at about 2 million a day, if we want to accomplish this by summer.”

Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson

Reaching more Americans faster may become more possible in coming months.

Pfizer and Moderna have announced that, combined, there will be 200 million additional doses by the end of March, and another 200 million at the end of June. 

“I'm going to be honest, those are best case scenarios,” Dr. Whyte said. “As you know, there can always be issues in the supply chain.”

The other good news is that Johnson & Johnson will likely submit their request for emergency use authorization in February for a vaccine that will potentially require one dose instead of two. In more good news, the company is working to produce 100 million doses that can be ready to be administered in coming months.

Health Messaging and the Biden Administration

The major issue, Dr. Whyte said, is “getting it into people’s arms.”

That will come down to health messaging and the government working with other federal agencies, which Dr. Whyte is optimistic about under the new administration.

“I think public health messaging is critical. And that's been one of the challenges,” he said.

He pointed out that there’s no need for politicians to give people advice that relates to science and that Americans are “starting to see a much more consistent message around what we need to do to return to normal or return to the next normal.”

Vaccinations vs. Lockdowns

“It is an interesting day for us to be talking because January 25 2020, was the day that we confirmed our first case (in Canada) of what would eventually be called COVID-19,” Dr. Ovens said, “And we really didn't know what we were in for at that point.”

He pointed out that, while vaccinations will eventually end the pandemic, they won’t help us out of the second wave we’re experiencing. “With the exception of vaccinating our frail elderly in long term care, where this could be a big lifesaver, it is a bit of a distraction, because we can't vaccinate our way out of this second wave.”

It’s been proven internationally that strict lockdowns are the only way to curb the pandemic’s growth once there is widespread community transmission as we face now, Dr. Ovens continued.

“Our maritime provinces have done as well as almost any country internationally. They've kept their travel restrictions in place and economically, they’ve done very well as a result also, whereas the other six more populous provinces are having large second waves.”

Because the vaccines now exist and we know how to stop the spread of the virus, it’s that much more frustrating, he said. “Everyone who's dying or getting seriously ill right now is a really a preventable tragedy.”

Travel Restrictions Key

Dr. Ovens echoed Dr. Whyte’s concerns over the new UK variant of the virus, which is responsible for a very severe outbreak in a long-term care facility in the Canadian city of Barrie.

There is a building consensus among experts that both domestic and international travel need to be reduced, he continued.

“I'd say the major question facing us in Canada today is do we have the social consensus and the political courage needed to stay the course on our public health restrictions until we can get the numbers of new cases down low,” Dr. Ovens said.

There are reasons for optimism, however, he continued. The pandemic response has been a true feat of science. There have been “really fantastic developments in testing, genomic sequencing, vaccination, therapeutics,” he said. “And I think the U.S. rejoining the World Health Organization, joining the COVAX group to try and support developing countries who need help getting their vaccinations – I think those are very important developments that are going to help us get all this back under control and help bring us out of this pandemic.”

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