Moderna vaccine gets approval boosting Canada’s fight against COVID-19

OTTAWA—Health Canada has approved a second COVID-19 vaccine, giving the green-light to Moderna to distribute its two-step inoculation against the deadly disease in Canada.

The decision, two weeks after federal regulators first approved a vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, clears the way for early deliveries of the Massachusetts-based Moderna vaccine to start.

The company could deliver the first batch of a year-end 168,000-dose delivery within 48 hours of approval, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week.

Canada has purchased 40 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, and has options to purchase another 16 million doses.

The Moderna vaccine is similar to the Pfizer vaccine which is now being used in a national vaccination campaign that began last week: both vaccines use messenger RNA, or bits of genetic coding material to stimulate an immune response to the novel coronavirus. The process does not use a weakened form of the virus itself and so does not risk transmitting the virus.

The Moderna vaccine also requires two doses, in this case spaced 28 days apart, not 21.

Clinical trial data showed both are safe and highly effective at preventing COVID-19.

Pfizer reported 95 per cent effectiveness rate for people aged 12-85 years, while Moderna’s rate was 94.1 per cent in adults over age 18. Moderna is now studying the safety and effectiveness of its vaccine in adolescents aged 12-18.

No serious safety concerns were identified with either vaccine.

Moderna’s approval has been eagerly anticipated because it has less stringent freezer storage requirements than Pfizer’s vaccine which needs “ultracold” minus-80 C shipping and storage conditions.

Moderna’s can be kept in medical grade minus-20 C freezers, and once thawed, has a longer shelf live, remaining stable for up to 30 days at regular refrigerator temperatures of two to eight degrees.

Health Canada on Dec. 10 approved the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for distribution and use in Canada, becoming the third country after Britain and Bahrain to authorize that vaccine.

Moderna’s rollout is expected to be somewhat easier.

Unlike Pfizer which is delivering its vaccine directly to points of use in Canada, Moderna will hand over its doses to private contractors FedEx Express and Innomar Solutions, contracted by the federal Liberal government, to ship and distribute Moderna’s vaccine to provinces and territories.

Exercises are underway to map out the Moderna deliveries to 70 different distribution hubs the provinces have stood up within the past week.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already approved Moderna’s application. The company says it expects to provide about 20 million doses to the U.S. by the end of the year. The American government has purchased a total of 200 million doses from Moderna, and has the option to purchase up to an additional 300 million doses.

The company says it is still on track to produce between 500 million and 1 billion doses globally in 2021, and has confirmed deals to fill orders from the U.S., the European Union, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, the U.K., Israel, Qatar and other countries totalling more than 390 million to date.

Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said, “These developments on the vaccine front bring hope that we are on the road to ending the pandemic.”

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But he, like other public health officials, warns it is no time to relax protective measures, since most Canadians won’t get access to a vaccine until mid to late next year.

Canada expects to receive 4 million Pfizer doses and 2 million Moderna doses by the end of March 2021, enough to vaccinate 3 million Canadians, or less than 10 per cent of the population.

Eventually, about 205 distribution sites are to be established across the country, as provinces and territories ramp up their vaccination campaigns.

Tonda MacCharles

TORONTO STAR