On Wednesday afternoon, health officials announced their plan for the COVID-19 vaccine, explaining how it works and how it will be rolled out to British Columbians over the coming weeks and months.
The announcement came shortly after Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use.
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The first COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in the province next week will be Pfizer. It will be delivered to two sites in the Lower Mainland — one in the Vancouver Coastal Health region and one in the Fraser Health region. Delivery is expected to expand to nine sites by January 2021.
Following the initial rollout, health officials expect to receive “tens of thousands” of doses in the subsequent weeks and into early January. Vaccines will continue arriving each week in BC in increasing quantities, with targeted deployment for people in priority groups. Timelines will depend on vaccine approval and availability.
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“We have plans to make sure that by the middle of January, we have [vaccination] sites identified in all regions of the province,” said Henry.
By March 2021, nearly 400,000 people should be immunized in the province.
Pfizer Canada and BioNTech will supply the Government of Canada a minimum of 20 million doses — and up to 76 million doses — of the vaccine through 2021.
Inoculating everyone in BC who wants a COVID-19 vaccine will be a long task with some heavy logistics involved.
Next week: The very first healthcare and long-term care workers dealing with COVID-19 patients
The first 4,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine that BC is receiving next week will go to workers in long-term care homes and other healthcare workers on the front lines of treating COVID-19 patients.
Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be kept at -70°C, so this decision is also a logistical one. The company is paying close attention to how its vaccine is being administered, and the doses are not allowed to be moved from pre-approved sites.
December and January: Long-term care residents
People living in BC’s long-term care homes are at the most risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. They’re a priority for health officials, but Dr. Bonnie Henry says they may need to wait for Moderna’s vaccine to be approved by Health Canada in the coming weeks.
Moderna’s product can be transported at standard freezer temperatures, so it can be taken to care homes and administered to residents where they live.
January to March: Seniors, shelter residents, and Indigenous communities
After long-term care vaccination strategies are set up, BC will look to immunize seniors in the community who are over 80.
Another early-stage priority group is people living in congregate settings such as homeless shelters. Henry said these people are another group at risk for developing severe illness and ending up in the hospital.
Remote Indigenous communities will also be a priority group, Henry said. Officials will be working with Indigenous leaders on this rollout plan.
March to April: Other frontline workers
By April, Dr. Henry expects there to be more types of vaccine available and more units of the ones already approved by Health Canada. Moderna and Pfizer have produced messenger RNA vaccines, but some older-style protein subunit vaccines are also in the pipeline. These traditional kinds can be administered by family doctors and pharmacies in the community.
Vaccination availability will also expand to include other frontline workers such as firefighters, police, teachers, grocery store workers, and food processing plant staff.
Dr. Henry said the government will proceed to identify groups by decreasing the risk for vaccination from there. As more vaccine becomes available, more seniors in the community will also be able to get their shots. She mentioned that perhaps people over 75 will be next in line, followed by people over 70.
Henry has previously said she expects all British Columbians who want the vaccine to be able to have it by September 2021.
According to Henry, the two vaccines use a new messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. While similar technologies have been worked on for the development of Zika, influenza, and rabies vaccines, “this is the first time that it has been manufactured and shown to work.”
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will contain a piece of the genetic coding for the coronavirus’ spike protein, which has been separated from the virus, synthetically produced, and wrapped in a lipid nanoparticle — a type of molecular envelope.
When the lipid-wrapped mRNA enters our cells, it stimulates them to produce their own spike protein. These new spike proteins will be recognized by our immune cells, which create antibodies that latch onto them.
When a person is exposed to COVID-19, the body recognizes the virus’ spike proteins of the same shape. From there, the immune system produces the same antibodies that prevent the individual from getting sick. Even if a person is infected, those antibodies prevent the virus from replicating so severe illness can be avoided.
“In other words, the vaccine helps us skip the illness and get straight to producing protective antibodies,” Henry said.
With files from Eric Zimmer, Megan Devlin, and Vincent Plana