Canada Steps Up Monitoring of Omicron Variant BA.2.86 and Vaccine Effectiveness


Federal scientists in Canada have initiated monitoring of global research efforts in their quest to understand the effectiveness of updated vaccines against the most recent COVID-19 variant. The first incidence of the Omicron variant BA.2.86 in Canada was recently confirmed in British Columbia, making Canada the seventh nation to report the presence of this variant.

Health Canada is presently reviewing applications for the newly formulated mRNA vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. These vaccines have been specifically developed to provide protection against the dominant strain, the XBB.1.5 variant. The vaccines are intended to be available ahead of a comprehensive vaccination campaign planned for the fall.

With only 13 available sequences of the BA.2.86 variant accessible for analysis across six countries, scientists are focusing on tracing the variant’s potential impact on disease severity, spread and potency of diagnostic tests, vaccines and treatments. This data gathered will provide a clearer understanding of the new variant’s prevalence as more laboratory and clinical data is reported.

The XBB.1.5 variant, at present, is at a moderate level, showing steady or increasing occurrences across all provinces and territories. However, hospitals in Windsor, Ontario and Montague, Prince Edward Island recently reported outbreaks of COVID-19.

The Omicron BA.2.86 variant was identified in a British Columbia resident who had no recent history of international travel, according to provincial authorities. The health authorities noted that the infected individual was not hospitalized and the strain showed no indication of increased disease severity.

As it stands, a large proportion of Canadians, approximately 80.5%, were confirmed to have received their initial series of COVID-19 vaccines by mid-June. The highest vaccine uptake was witnessed in Newfoundland and Labrador, with an impressive nearly 92% of the population vaccinated, whereas the lowest vaccination rate, 75.5%, was reported in the Northwest Territories.

Despite the gradual return to social activities, the ever-evolving virus continues to put the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, at the highest risk of infection. Yet only about 21% of Canadians aged 80 and more have received booster vaccines or completed the primary vaccination series during the last six months.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended that Canadians consider taking a booster shot in the fall, especially if it has been at least six months since their last dose or COVID-19 infection.

The triple threat of widespread influenza, RSV and COVID-19 faced by parts of the Southern Hemisphere during its respiratory season, from April to September, has raised grave concerns. This could lead to the health-care system’s capacity being stretched thin, as seen in Australia, where there were shortages of children’s pain relievers and long waits in emergency rooms, despite Australians’ access to the present bivalent COVID vaccines.

The upcoming fall is also expected to witness more Canadians getting a booster shot against influenza. A vaccine against the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) might also be made available for those above 60 years of age, pending decisions by the respective provinces and territories.

Virologist Eric Arts points out the critical need for Canadians to get vaccinated in the fall, as many approach a year since their last booster shot. The updated vaccines are anticipated to be better at combating the circulating Omicron variants. He added, “Hopefully, the bureaucracy will be fast to get them out.”


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