Ottawa experts express cautious optimism about COVID-19 vaccine news

Local experts are recommending cautious optimism about Trudeau’s announcement that, if all goes well, a COVID-19 vaccine could come to Canada in early 2021, bringing some semblance of normalcy to life.

Pfizer said early analysis of its COVID-19 vaccine trial suggests high effectiveness on Monday

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and an associate professor in the University of Ottawa's faculty of health sciences, expresses cautious optimism a vaccine may arrive in 2021. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Local experts are recommending cautious optimism about Trudeau's announcement that, if all goes well, a COVID-19 vaccine could come to Canada in early 2021.

But normal life in 2021 or even 2022 may not be what it was pre-pandemic.

"We're not going back to 2019 any time soon. We're going back to a new normal," said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa.   

U.S.-based pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said Monday that early analysis of its novel coronavirus vaccine trial suggested the vaccine was more than 90 per cent effective in preventing the disease among trial participants who had no evidence of prior infection.

Earl Brown, a biologist and immunologist at the University of Ottawa, said while this news is encouraging, the numbers are preliminary. 

"It's early on. The numbers are small and this is a statistical significance," Brown said, referring to the 90 per cent effectiveness rate.

The study looked at the 94 infections recorded so far. Brown is cautious and said the data is preliminary, and wants to see if it will hold up with a larger test group.

Earl Brown, a virologist in Ottawa, says the numbers from the Pfizer study are preliminary but if they hold true they are exciting. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Brown said the trial is still in progress and Pfizer won't have safety data for another two months. 

"They want to see the two-month safety aspect of the vaccine and then they'll want to see that it's protecting against disease," he said.

Logistical and distribution challenges

Once the vaccine gets approved, there are logistical issues Deonandan called a "challenge unlike any before in public health history."  

The vaccine must be stored at –70 C which will make distribution over a country as large as Canada difficult, and it requires at least one booster. 

The early goal of the vaccine, as Deonandan sees it, will be to ease the burden on the health-care system by inoculating health-care workers and vulnerable people. But everyone else may be wearing masks and practising physical distancing well into 2022. 

But overall, he's optimistic.

"The good news is that we have a vaccine ... I'd rather be in a position where we have the challenge of distribution than nothing to distribute at all," Deonandan said.

"Now that we can see the light, we can bear down and persevere through the long night."

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