Health Canada has approved a new version of Moderna’s Spikevax COVID-19 vaccine, which is expected to be rolled out alongside other COVID and flu shots this fall in a campaign public-health leaders hope will mitigate the toll of respiratory virus season.
The Canadian regulator gave the greenlight to the reformulated Moderna shot on Tuesday, one day after the United States Food and Drug Administration approved tweaked vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
Health Canada officials said they were still reviewing Pfizer-BioNTech’s revised vaccine, as well as a proposal for an updated shot from Novavax, which makes a protein-based vaccine for people who can’t or don’t want to take an mRNA shot.
Health Canada’s announcement came as COVID infections and hospital admissions have begun to climb again, although at nowhere near the pace of the punishing early years of the pandemic.
The Public Health Agency of Canada’s most recent data show that 2,165 hospital beds across the country were occupied by COVID patients as of Sept. 5, up slightly from 2,125 a week earlier. At the height of the first Omicron wave in the winter of 2022, more than 10,000 people with COVID were in Canadian hospitals.
“Over all, the COVID indicators are still at quite low levels,” Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, told a news conference on Tuesday. “So we’re just at the beginning, I think, of this fall-winter circulation. So it’s not too late to get a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu shot.”
Dr. Tam said the provincial and local officials who administer vaccine programs will likely start their dual flu-and-COVID shot campaigns in early October.
The federal government has agreements with Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Novavax for up to 33 million doses of the reformulated shots for fall and winter of 2023-24.
The reformulated versions all target a sublineage of Omicron known as XBB.1.5, which was dominant through most of the spring and summer.
Although XBB.1.5 has already been eclipsed by another Omicron offshoot called EG.5, the revised shots should hold up well against both EG.5 and another variant known as BA.2.86, Dr. Tam said.
The BA.2.86 variant provoked alarm among scientists around the world when it was identified in late July because its genetic sequence has more than 35 amino-acid changes from XBB.1.5 – an evolutionary leap that some worried would allow it to evade immunity from vaccines and past infections.
So far the worst fears about BA.2.86 haven’t come to pass, in large part because it appears to be less transmissible than competing variants. Only 11 cases of BA.2.86 have been found in Canada since the variant was first reported in a British Columbia resident in late August.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a nothing burger,” Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, said of BA.2.86, “but it doesn’t seem like it’s the one that would dominate at this point in time. Thankfully, we do have data to show that the current vaccines that we are reviewing and the one that we’ve approved do have effect against all the variants” that are circulating now.
Health leaders are hoping the combined flu and COVID vaccine campaign will help avoid a repeat of the 2022-23 respiratory virus season, when a “tripledemic” of influenza, COVID and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) overwhelmed hospitals, particularly in the pediatric sector.
COVID was less of a factor in the pressure on children’s hospitals, which were filled to the brim with kids suffering serious cases of RSV and the flu after two seasons in which public-health measures such as lockdowns and mandatory masking kept those viruses at bay.
Most Canadians have had at least two doses of a COVID vaccine and one or more bouts with COVID, which together prepare the immune system to fight off a fresh infection.
But immunity wanes over time, which is why Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended in June that everyone who is eligible for a COVID booster receive one made with the new recipe this fall if they haven’t had a shot or an infection in the past six months.
The challenge now will be convincing Canadians to get another COVID jab. Uptake has waned with each subsequent booster.
Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo said public-health officials plan to turn to trusted people in the community, such as doctors and faith leaders, to advocate for vaccination.
“We’re looking at sort of a multipronged approach,” he said, “rather than just having a few talking heads here sitting at a press conference.”