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Canadian regulators approve AstraZeneca vaccine

Health Canada gives the nod to third vaccine against COVID-19
Credit: Getty Images / Alernon77

Canada’s mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 is about to ramp up further with the approval of a third vaccine.

Health Canada gave the nod to AstraZeneca plc’s vaccine Friday (February 26), opening the door to the delivery of another 20 million doses to Canadians.

Unlike the first two vaccines to be approved by regulators — Moderna Inc. (NYSE:MRNA) and Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) — AstraZeneca’s product does not need to be maintained at ultra-cool temperatures as low as -20C to -80C.

Instead, AstraZeneca can be stored at fridge temperatures of 2C to 8C.

Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, said during a technical briefing that those moderate temperatures will provide officials with more flexibility distributing the vaccine across Canada.

However, the newly approved vaccine has an efficacy rate of 62% compared with about 95% for Pfizer and Moderna.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are what are known as messenger RNA — or mRNA — vaccines, which provides instructions to cells in the human body to create a protein that our immune system can recognize and respond against.

AstraZeneca is a viral vector-based vaccine, which uses a “harmless modified version” of the virus, according to Sharma.

“People have been using these types of viruses and vaccines for decades. It’s important to note that these viral vectors do not cause illness,” she said.

Common side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine include pain and tenderness at the injection site on the body as well as headaches, muscle pain, fever and chills.

“The majority of adverse reactions in clinical trials were mild [to] moderate in severity and resolved within a few days,” Sharma said.

When pressed by reporters on why Canadians would want to take a new vaccine less effective than Pfizer or Moderna, Sharma pointed to data from clinical trials.

“The number of cases of people that died from COVID-19 that got the vaccine was zero. And the number of people that were hospitalized because their COVID-19 disease was so severe was zero,” she said.

“The number of people that died because of an adverse event of an effect of the vaccine was zero.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine requires two doses to be administered four to 12 weeks apart.

Sharma said data shows that its efficacy increases the longer the delay.

Health Canada also approved on Friday the vaccine from the Serum Institute of India, which Sharma described as “the same vaccine” as AstraZeneca’s aside from manufacturing differences.

“The recipe for the vaccine is the same but they’re manufactured in different kitchens,” she said.

AstraZeneca partnered with the Serum Institute of India last month in a bid to produce more of its doses at scale.

With Canada’s authorization of the Serum Institute of India’s vaccine, known as Covishield, it will be able to obtain what are essentially AstraZeneca’s doses — only manufactured in India.

Canada’s primary source of AstraZeneca vaccine doses will still be the U.S.

During a separate briefing later in the day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed Canada had secured an order of 2 million doses of the Covishield vaccine.

The first 500,000 doses will arrive “within weeks” while the remainder will be delivered over the next few months, he said.

Those 2 million Covishield doses are on top of 20 million doses already reserved with AstraZeneca.

Later in the briefing, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said the first 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine will “arrive in the coming days.”

“We are receiving positive indications that we are on track to receive our 20 million doses from the facility in the United States,” Anand said.

With Pfizer and Moderna due to deliver six million total doses by the end of March, Canada will see about 6.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses arrive by the end of the first quarter of 2021.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the arrival of the new vaccines could accelerate the country’s goal of administering doses to all Canadians who wish for one by the end of September.

“But, of course, we’ve seen there can be bumps in the road. Things can happen on the manufacturing side. There can be challenges along the way,” she said.

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