Cross Country Checkup

No, vaccine boosters won't stop an Omicron surge. They can buy us time, experts say

Despite efforts to increase uptake in many parts of Canada, vaccine boosters won’t stop a fifth wave of COVID-19 — but they will buy time for provinces not yet facing an Omicron variant-fuelled surge, experts told Cross Country Checkup.

'We need interventions to blunt the wave,' said director of Ontario's Science Advisory Table

Dr. Lesley Seymour administers a COVID-19 vaccine during a drive-through clinic in Kingston, Ont. Several provinces have made vaccine boosters available to all adults over 18, while others have yet to announce plans despite recommendations by experts. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Despite efforts to increase uptake in many parts of Canada, vaccine boosters won't stop a fifth wave, says the scientific director of Ontario's Science Advisory Table.

But boosters will buy time for provinces not yet facing an Omicron-variant fuelled surge, according to Dr. Peter Jüni.

Speaking to Cross Country Checkup, Jüni said that provinces must instead use the third doses as part of broader efforts — including tighter restrictions on some businesses and personal gatherings — that will help prepare Canadians for the coming months.

"It's not a recipe against the current tidal wave that Ontario is starting to face already, and other provinces will follow," said Jüni.

"We invest with the booster so that when we loosen restrictions again … we start to see protections through the boosters. That's the idea."

Several provinces have already announced measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant. B.C., Ontario and Quebec have all clamped down on capacity limits in businesses. Some jurisdictions announced plans to make rapid tests more accessible, though demand has outstripped supply.

WATCH | Dr. Peter Juni explains how to properly use a rapid antigen test:

How to use rapid COVID-19 tests at home

1 year ago
Duration 2:18
Want to use a rapid COVID-19 test to be safer over the holidays? Dr. Peter Juni, from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, explains how to properly use one and how the tests work.

But several provinces — including B.C., Alberta and Quebec — have yet to announce plans to expand booster doses to all adults, even as experts call for faster rollout. They say it can take two weeks or more for the boosters to help people develop the needed immunity increase.

"Nothing matters more than getting these third shots into arms," said Ontario Premier Doug Ford at a news conference on Wednesday. Booster shots will be available to everyone over 18 in that province as of Monday, while a handful of other provinces have already lowered eligibility.

Uncertainty around booster shots is causing anxiety for many Canadians as the more-transmissible Omicron variant upends holiday plans. Multiple provinces set single-day records for case counts this week.

Though early data shows promising results for the efficacy of boosters in fighting the Omicron variant, Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor at Britain's Warwick Medical School, says it's too early to know exactly how it will change the course of the next wave.

"It's quite clear, however, that there is something really important about getting booster shots to protect [against] the severe disease and, indeed, protect your health service as well," he said.

The United Kingdom is facing a steep uptick in cases as a result of the Omicron variant, and Young notes that hospitalizations in London are slowly rising.

People wait to be vaccinated at a COVID-19 vaccination centre in Ramsgate, England, on Tuesday. Long lines have formed for booster shots across England as the U.K. government urged all adults to protect themselves against the Omicron variant. (Gareth Fuller/PA/The Associated Press)

Provinces differ on booster roll out

Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health for New Brunswick, says the province could announce a change to booster eligibility as early as Monday. 

But concerns around logistics and the availability of certain vaccine brands are slowing the rollout.

"Changes are definitely on the horizon," she told Checkup on Friday. "There are so many moving parts right now in terms of supply, capacity for giving doses."

She added that demand for boosters among those already eligible has been strong. 

Travellers walk through Toronto's Pearson airport. Health officials are advising against holiday travel as COVID-19 cases linked to the Omicron variant rise. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Christopher McCabe, a professor in the faculty of medicine of the University of Alberta, says concerns about short supply of booster doses is well-founded. If you invite people to visit clinics, pharmacies and doctor's offices to get a third jab, and there's none available, they may not return.

"You want to be comfortable you've got it — [that] the supply is there — before you invite people to come," he said.

Manitoba opened up eligibility of booster doses for adults 18 and over in early November before Omicron was discovered. Dr. Joss Reimer, the province's vaccine task force lead, says the aim was to ensure at-risk individuals — whether they have a health condition or work public-facing jobs — were protected.

That province has yet to see a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases like Ontario and Quebec, but Reimer says they are seeing a rise in demand for the boosters.

"We're certainly hopeful that we'll be able to at least blunt the effect of the oncoming wave that's going to be bringing Omicron to the province," she told Checkup.

WATCH | WHO says Omicron cases can double every one to three days: 

Omicron spreading in nations with high immunity, WHO says

1 year ago
Duration 3:47
The World Health Organization says the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus has been reported in 89 countries — with COVID-19 cases doubling approximately every one to three days.

Expand eligibility, keep restrictions

Young says that even though early indications out of South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first discovered, suggest it results in a mild illness, its transmissibility makes it a significant concern.

"If you've got a million people infected, then a small percentage will be hospitalized," Young said. "A small percentage of a million is a lot of people, and that's the real issue."

The message out of the U.K.? If you want to have an enjoyable Christmas, be careful over the coming days, he told Checkup.

In Canada, Jüni says now is the time for all governments to expand the eligibility of COVID-19 vaccines.

In the meantime, public-health measures like reducing capacity limits, limiting contacts and avoiding non-essential travel will help slow cases and provide the opportunity to get more doses in arms.

"We need interventions to blunt the wave so that we have a bit more time so that … we are able to roll [boosters] out and that they are able to start to develop their effectiveness," he said.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Ashley Fraser and Steve Howard.

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