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A vial of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, on March 15, 2021.Christophe Ena/The Associated Press

Quebec will no longer administer the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as a first dose, following new advice from the province’s immunization committee.

The Health Department said Thursday in a news release that people who have received AstraZeneca can choose whether to get a second dose of that vaccine or another available vaccine as a booster shot.

The department, however, says it continues to recommend that people who have received a dose of AstraZeneca get a second dose of the same because it says studies suggest booster shots of different vaccines have been linked to more severe short-term side-effects, such as fever, headaches and fatigue.

Quebec’s decision to move away from AstraZeneca follows similar moves in Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Dr. Nicholas Brousseau, chair of Quebec’s immunization committee, the Comite sur l’immunisation du Quebec, said that with additional supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines, the risk-benefit calculation around AstraZeneca has changed.

People 45 and over in Quebec who have not yet been vaccinated can now quickly get a dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which he said are not associated with the “very low risk” of blood clots. Brousseau, however, said the AstraZeneca vaccine saved lives in Quebec by allowing the province to vaccinate more people faster.

“It allowed us to significantly advance the time of their vaccination in the midst of the third wave,” he said. “There were more benefits than drawbacks.”

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been linked to rare blood clots, with around one case reported in every 100,000 people vaccinated. The Health Department says the odds of blood clots are lower for the second dose – around one in 1,000,000.

Premier Francois Legault told reporters Thursday the risk associated with AstraZeneca is very low and the province is following recommendations of public health.

Elsewhere, public health officials in Bas-St-Laurent, northeast of Quebec City, have asked a meat plant in Riviere-du-Loup, Que., to close for 10 days in an effort to stop a COVID-19 outbreak.

Dr. Sylvain Leduc, the public health director in the region, told reporters Thursday 104 workers at the duBreton plant – which employs around 500 people – have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak in late April.

The company said in a news release it is co-operating with authorities and has shut down operations.

Quebec reported 781 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and five more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Health officials said hospitalizations dropped by 10, to 520, and 121 people were in intensive care, a drop of five.

Canadian maker of promising mRNA COVID-19 vaccine looks to test it against Pfizer in new trial

A homegrown mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 shows promising results in its first small trial and its maker is hoping to test it directly against the vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech.

Calgary-based Providence Therapeutics says its vaccine produced no serious adverse events and developed good antibodies against COVID-19 that “compare favourably” with the two mRNA vaccines already on the market from Pfizer and Moderna.

“We’re extremely pleased,” said Providence CEO Brad Sorenson.

The Phase 1 trial included 60 healthy adults between 18 and 64, with more than half of them receiving two doses of the vaccine, four weeks apart. The results have not yet been peer-reviewed.

Sorenson said the next step is supposed to be a Phase 2 head-to-head trial that would test the effectiveness of Providence against Pfizer. Most vaccines in Phase 2 have been tested only against a placebo, but Sorenson said in a pandemic he feels it is unethical to give someone a placebo when they could otherwise be vaccinated.

But to do the trial, Providence needs 500 doses of Pfizer, which he said neither the company nor the National Research Council has been willing to provide.

A spokeswoman for Pfizer said Thursday the company’s focus is only on getting the vaccine to meet an “urgent public health need” and will only sell its vaccine to the federal government.

“As such, we are not providing supply of our vaccine to third-parties to study the vaccine in comparative trials,” said Christina Antoniou.

Pfizer is the main component of Canada’s vaccination campaign to date, accounting for two-thirds of the deliveries as of this week.

A spokesman for Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said the government has informed Providence Ottawa is willing to help fund its Phase 2 trial, and continue to work with the company.

“Minister Champagne has spoken directly with Providence Therapeutics’ CEO and the chair of their board of directors to discuss our continued support for their work as they bring their vaccine candidate through the early stages of development,” said John Power.

A spokesman for the National Research Council said it doesn’t have access to doses of Pfizer or Moderna to help Providence, but is discussing the request with other departments that might be able to help, including Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Sorenson said Providence is also discussing with the World Health Organization the possibility of doing a Phase 3 trial in a developing country.

Sorenson said if Health Canada supports both trials, they could be wrapped up by the end of the year. But Sorenson said he doesn’t feel supported by Ottawa and has threatened to take the business outside the country.

The company has production agreements in place that should be able to produce 200 million doses a year, he said.

Providence is one of six Canadian companies that received funding from the National Research Council for COVID-19 vaccines that were in early stages of development.

The company received $4.9-million last October to help fund its Phase 1 trial. It also received $5 million in January from the next-generation manufacturing supercluster to help scale up its manufacturing of mRNA.

Canada currently doesn’t make any of the vaccines it is using – Pfizer is being made in Europe and the United States, Canada’s doses of Moderna are all coming from Europe, and Oxford-AstraZeneca is coming from the United States, India and South Korea.

The only Canadian-made vaccine among the seven procured by Canada for COVID-19 to date is Medicago’s plant-based protein vaccine, which is now in a Phase 3 trial and could be ready for mass production before the end of the year.

Medicago received $173-million in October to push its vaccine forward as well as an undisclosed sum for a contract to provide Canada at least 20 million doses if it is approved. Some of it will be made in Canada, but production will also take place in the U.S.

A lack of domestic drug manufacturing hurt Canada’s vaccination program, particularly early on, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government is intent on fixing that ahead of the next global health crisis.

Manitoba reports record 560 new COVID-19 cases

The Manitoba government reported a record 560 new COVID-19 cases Thursday as the third wave of the pandemic showed no sign of abating.

Even with three earlier cases removed due to data correction, the net increase surpassed the previous high of 546 last November.

“The key challenge we face now, as our numbers have risen, is that we have to get everybody vaccinated and we have to follow the public health rules and shorten the third wave,” Premier Brian Pallister said. The Premier spoke before Thursday’s numbers were released.

Other indicators were also pointing to a severe third wave.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care remained at a record 62. The percentage of people testing positive, averaged over the previous five days, stood at 12 per cent provincially and 14.4 per cent in Winnipeg.

The three deaths reported Thursday came one day after Manitoba reached a grim milestone of 1,000 dead from COVID-19.

New Brunswick reports two more cases of rare blood clotting linked to AstraZeneca vaccine

New Brunswick reported two more cases on Thursday of a rare blood-clotting event in people who received the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Two people in their 50s received the vaccine in mid-April, and one became ill after 11 days and the other fell ill after 19 days, chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell said Thursday.

One person has recovered while the second person is in hospital. New Brunswick has reported a total of four cases of vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia, including one death.

“We have experienced a higher-than-average number of cases of VITT compared to the global numbers – which can happen,” Russell said. “However, AstraZeneca remains an important tool in our fight against COVID-19.”

She said the province will continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine as booster shots for people who have already received their first dose of that vaccine.

“We will not be using the vaccine for first doses in our campaign for the general population, but there are circumstances where this approved and widely used global vaccine can be used for homebound extramural patients who have provided their consent, after fully understanding the associated risks,” Russell said.

She said the risk of blood clots after a second dose of AstraZeneca is reported being around one in one million.

New Brunswick has administered 44,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and still has 4,000 doses on hand. The province says it expects to receive another 13,500 doses next week.

The province reported 16 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, 10 of which are in the Fredericton region. Officials said 10 people were in hospital with the disease, including three in intensive care.

The Horizon Health Network reported a COVID-19 outbreak at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital complex in Fredericton. Visitation is restricted and non-urgent surgeries and ambulatory care appointments will be postponed until further notice.

Ford renews calls for tighter border controls to rein in COVID-19 variants

Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks at Queen's Park, in Toronto, on April 1, 2021.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is renewing his calls for tighter controls on domestic travellers and those who arrive through land crossings, saying Ottawa has yet to respond to his requests on these issues.

The Premier has issued another letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arguing additional measures – such as quarantine requirements for travellers coming into Canada by land – are needing to curb the spread of more contagious COVID-19 variants.

Trudeau said last week that he was willing to work with Ontario to further limit the number of people allowed to enter the province, but said Ford had yet to follow up on his earlier requests.

Ford, who has made few public appearances in recent weeks, is scheduled to make an announcement at noon alongside his health minister and the province’s top doctor.

Meanwhile, Ontarians aged 40 and older can book COVID-19 vaccine appointments across the province today.

The province is opening eligibility to the age cohort through its vaccine booking portal.

People in their 40s could previously take Oxford-AstraZeneca shots at pharmacies and they can now book at other clinics.

The province stopped giving first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine this week, citing risk of a rare but serious blood clot linked to the shot.

People with at-risk health conditions and more people who can’t work from home also became eligible to book shots this week.

Ontario reported 2,759 new COVID-19 cases today and 31 more deaths from the virus.

More than 60% of B.C. residents have received first dose of vaccine, health minister says

British Columbia’s health minister says more than 60 per cent of residents have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Adrian Dix says everyone who’s eligible should be registering to book an appointment for a shot.

He and provincial health officer Doctor Bonnie Henry say the province is holding its remaining stock of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to use as second doses, as significantly more shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are expected to arrive this month.

B.C. recorded 600 new cases yesterday and one more death for a total of one-thousand 625 fatalities from COVID-19.

Manitoba votes to push through bill that gives workers paid leave to get vaccinated

Members of the Manitoba legislature have voted unanimously to push through legislation to encourage workers to get vaccinated.

Legislation that provides paid COVID-19 vaccination leave for workers introduced Tuesday by Finance Minister Scott Fielding was passed and received royal assent yesterday.

The bill entitles employees in Manitoba to up to three hours of paid leave to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

It also expands job protection for an employee who is temporarily unable to work due to circumstances related to COVID-19 or who suffers from side-effects after receiving a vaccine.

Emergency rooms in three rural Alberta communities affected by doctor shortages

Emergency rooms in three rural Alberta communities have or are being affected this week by a shortage of doctors due to COVID-19.

Alberta Health Services says the Elk Point Healthcare Centre emergency department will be without on-site physician coverage for 24 hours starting this morning.

Rocky Mountain House Health Centre emergency department was without physician coverage overnight.

And the Fairview Health Complex emergency department was without a physician overnight Tuesday.

The province says they weren’t able to find doctors to cover the shifts because a number of physicians have been affected by the virus.

Medical exception letters required for Albertans who don’t wear masks in public areas

Alberta has moved to close loopholes people might use as a way to avoid wearing masks in public indoor places.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health, said Thursday that effective immediately, anyone not wearing a mask where required will need to have a medical exception letter.

Wearing masks remains a “critical public health measure” to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus and there are a “limited number of health issues” for which a mask exception is possible, she said.

Those include sensory processing disorders, developmental delay or cognitive impairment, mental illness disorders, facial trauma or recent oral or jaw surgery, contact dermatitis or allergic reactions to masks.

“In order to verify that someone has a medical condition that makes them unable to wear a mask, Albertans with these conditions will require a medical exception letter from a health professional,” Hinshaw said at a COVID-19 update.

“This letter is important to have especially if requested by enforcement officials for not complying with the legal requirement to wear a mask in indoor public spaces.”

Hinshaw said the letters must come from a nurse practitioner, physician or psychologist.

She said the change comes as a result of talks with Alberta Health Services staff as well as some publicly reported instances where people have refused to wear a mask.

“There have been some incidents reported in the media where individuals who are not following public health rules are perhaps seeking loopholes or areas in the rules where it’s not clear. That’s sometimes challenging our local law enforcement teams,” Hinshaw said.

“[Masks] are not optional. They are mandatory.”

Alberta reported another 1,558 infections Thursday and nine more deaths. There were 722 people in hospital and 177 in intensive care.

Hinshaw said Alberta has now administered more than two million COVID-19 vaccine doses and there are another 328,000 appointments for a shot in the next seven days. If vaccine supply remains constant, the province is likely to start offering second doses in June, she said.

Saskatchewan pharmacies experiencing brief delay in vaccine shipments after mistake by government

Saskatchewan pharmacies are experiencing a brief delay in their COVID-19 vaccination shipments following a mistake by the provincial government.

Pharmacies were told to expect a shipment yesterday but the vaccines are now to arrive today.

Health Minister Paul Merriman apologized to pharmacists, saying they have been very good at getting themselves ready to vaccinate people.

He says the province is learning from the scheduling hiccup and will ensure it does not happen again.

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