By: Janet Whitman
HALIFAX: Dr. Joanne Langley says Nova Scotia and the rest of the country have some built-in immunity against vaccine supply hiccups with a roster of five other vaccine makers to choose from if Pfizer or Moderna fail to deliver.
The Dalhousie University professor and infectious diseases expert has been at the forefront of Canada’s coronavirus battle since May when she was tapped to co-lead a new COVID-19 vaccine taskforce to tackle the deadly pandemic.
After hundreds of hours of meetings, she and her colleagues on the taskforce came up with a portfolio of seven companies that Ottawa ended up signing $1 billion worth of advance purchase agreements for millions of vaccine doses to treat SARS-CoV-2, as the disease is known in the medical and vaccine world.
So far, only Pfizer, German biotech firm BioNTech, and Moderna have approval to ship. But vaccines from AstraZeneca, Medicago, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and Sanofi are expected to follow.
The eventual supply from the other providers means this province should be able to deliver on a plan to have 75 per cent of Nova Scotians vaccinated with the recommended two doses against the coronavirus by the end of September.
Langley, a specialist in pediatrics and head of infectious diseases at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, says the current supply glitches experienced by Pfizer are no surprise.
“For those of us working in vaccines, these kinds of things are completely expected,” she says. “It’s not like you’re pouring a glass of water. It’s a biological process you’re dealing with. Things can go wrong. They will eventually go right… But you have to make sure you’re meeting every standard.”
Langley says it’s much too soon to predict how effective the vaccines will be in the long run or what path COVID-19 might take.
“Some pathogens come and just burn out. SARS-1 is an example of that,” she says. “And some just persist, for example, H1N1, which came in 2009 and is routinely included in flu vaccines each year.”
Experts are modeling COVID’s potential.
“At one extreme, it could continue to evolve each season. On the other hand, it might not,” says Langley. “We don’t know what the story will be for the coronavirus.”
Some projections show the virus could continue circulating into 2024. With widespread immunity, the only people susceptible to catching it would be newborns and children.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are on par with some of the most effective vaccines in medicine, each with close to the 97 per cent efficacy of the measles vaccine.
But the test period has been too short to know how long that effectiveness will last. With some vaccines like the flu, for instance, annual doses are needed, while a tetanus shot is only recommended every 10 years.
“Until we have widespread use of the COVID vaccine and we understand the presence of the virus in vaccinated people, we should continue to be very careful of protecting grandparents and our older friends,” says Langley.
Without a vaccine, there would be ongoing outbreaks and higher rates of death until the population reached its own herd immunity, she says.
No vaccine would also mean an extended need for health measures to try and thwart the spread of the virus, such as mandates for physical distancing, limited gatherings and mask wearing, in a further test to the limits of a functioning society.
“Even during the influenza pandemic of the early 1900s, we didn’t have these widespread societal measures,” says Langley.
She says everyone in the vaccine world is in awe of how quickly the COVID-19 vaccines were created.
“It shows what can happen when we focus on a threat,” she says
The previous record was four years for the mumps in the 1960s.
Two things that helped speed things along this time around were hundreds of millions of dollars in backing for expedited COVID vaccine development from the Trump administration under its “Operation Warp Speed” program and work that already had been done on messenger RNA vaccines, also known as mRNA vaccines, and other advances in research.
With the mRNA vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna, instead of injecting a weakened or inactivated germ, they teach cells how to make a “spike protein” that triggers an immune response and creates antibodies to protect people from getting infected from the virus. The process is quicker than creating inactivated or weakened germs.
Longer term, Canadian companies such as Halifax vaccine-maker IMV Inc. might have a role to play in treatment efforts.
Finding such companies was on Langley’s to-do list at the taskforce.
IMV, formerly known as Immunovaccine Inc., was among the handful to get funding, landing $10 million from Ottawa to-date. The company, which started out of Dalhousie in 2000 with cash from the government to create a vaccine to prevent seals from getting pregnant, has taken its patented “rocket-booster” vaccine technology to develop immunotherapies for cancer treatments and, now, a possible COVID-19 vaccine.
Langley says companies such as IMV that didn’t make the list of seven contracted by Ottawa to provide vaccines could sell their product in deals down the road with the provinces, which are the typical buyers of vaccines.
Langley is on the advisory committee for the deployment of the vaccine in Nova Scotia.
“The rollout to an entire population is not a small effort, especially when you’re dealing with a vaccine that needs to be held at very special storage conditions at (-70 C),” she says. “It all takes time. We’d all like it to be faster. I think we will see things speed up as people get more familiar with it.”