The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for March 5

  • Coronavirus tracker: Follow the pace of COVID-19 cases, vaccinations in Canada.
  • Toronto, Peel inch away from full restrictions as province upgrades vaccine plans.
  • A look at the preparations, concerns as an energy megaproject starts to ramp up again in northern B.C.
  • Manitoba officials detail widespread First Nations immunization plans with spring weather hazards in mind.
  • Read more: Toronto tourism agency hopes for some signs of life after an estimated $8-billion loss last year in economic activity through visitor spending; A look at Alberta’s pandemic situation at the one-year mark, including an interactive graph showing cases by region over time.

An Iraqi youth on a wheelchair offers Pope Francis a garland during his stop at a Baghdad cathedral. The first visit by any pontiff to Iraq is being welcomed by Christians in the region, but also raising concerns about security and the potential for virus spread. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine could be a game changer, if supply timeline is ironed out

In announcing the approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine produced in conjunction with Belgium’s Janssen on Friday, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser said a review of data from a clinical trial involving more than 44,000 participants found the shot is safe and effective.

“As with all COVID-19 vaccines, Health Canada authorized the Janssen one after an independent and thorough scientific review for safety, efficacy and quality,” said Dr. Supriya Sharma.

While the vaccine tested less effectively in its trial for moderate illness than previously approved vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — both of which had efficacy rates of 90 per cent and above — the three trials were not identical. The Johnson & Johnson trial took place at a time and in countries where more transmissible coronavirus variants had developed, while the South African trial also included some patients who are HIV-positive.

Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, likened comparing the trials to comparing golf scores between duffers who teed off in calmer conditions to those who did so when “winds were howling.”

Sharma noted that the J&J single-shot offers strong protection against the threats that matter most: serious illness, hospitalizations and death.

The single-shot aspect brings optimistic possibilities in both urban and remote settings, experts told CBC’s Lauren Pelley.

“You can way more easily get a vaccine like this into primary care clinics and pharmacies, which means that you can distribute it so much more broadly,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who is a member of Ontario’s vaccine task force.

The applications for developing nations were noted by Dr. Zain Chagla, a Hamilton, Ont.-based infectious disease specialist and professor at McMaster University.

“This is a vaccine that could go into mass vaccine clinics in low- and middle-income countries that could be stored on the back of a motorcycle to make it into a very, very remote setting,” said Chagla. “That is very, very different than anything we have in that sense.”

The nub for Canada is the supply issue. There is no timeline yet for delivery this year, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that the president of Janssen Canada, Jorge Bartolome, assured him this morning that the company is working to set up its global supply chains and plans to meet its delivery commitments.

But Johnson and Johnson had to strike a deal recently in the U.S. with pharmaceutical company Merck to ramp up production for tens of millions of doses for the American market. The doses there are scheduled to be distributed in a matter of months, which leaves open to question how much excess capacity will be available for other nations, and when.

Nevertheless, with a fourth vaccine now approved for the Canadian population eligible for vaccination, federal officials expressed optimism Friday that supply overall will soon cease to be an issue.

From The National

Ottawa and the airlines have entered the final stages of talks over a multi-billion dollar bailout deal as passengers await compensation for flights cancelled during the pandemic. 2:24

IN BRIEF

Toronto, Peel inch away from restrictions as Ontario upgrades vaccine plans

Stay-at-home orders in Ontario’s two most populated regions — Toronto and Peel — as well as North Bay Parry Sound are being lifted, the province announced Friday.

The changes are effective March 8. North Bay Parry Sound will be returning to the framework at the red-control level, the province said in a news release, while Toronto and Peel will enter at the grey-lockdown level.

“Despite this positive step forward, a return to the framework is not a return to normal,” said Health Minister Christine Elliott. “As we continue vaccinating more Ontarians, it remains critical for everyone to continue to follow public health measures and stay home as much as possible to protect themselves, their loved ones and their communities.”

For Toronto and Peel, it means scores of retail businesses can reopen for in-person traffic for the first time since December, albeit with strict capacity limits. Restaurants are still closed for indoor dining, and gyms and personal care services are also not yet eligible for reopening.

Ontario expects to give all adults 60 and older a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by early June, officials said Friday, as they detailed who will qualify for a shot during Phase 2 of the province’s immunization campaign. That’s at least a month sooner than originally planned. Ontario’s rollout strategy was recently revised amid a wave of vaccine-related news, including the approvals of a third and fourth vaccine for use in Canada and the option to space out shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines by up to four months.

Retired general Rick Hillier, who is running the province’s vaccination task force, called this a “seismic shift,” adding that officials are “gaining confidence” about a steady flow of vaccines, and those numbers growing each week.

“We need your patience just a little bit longer,” Hillier said.

Read more about the pandemic in Ontario

Companies involved in LNG megaproject in B.C. insist workers will be tested, protected as much as possible

Thousands of industrial workers are set to arrive this month at work camps and construction sites at an energy megaproject in northern B.C. that has been operating at greatly reduced capacity due to the pandemic.

By the end of March, the number of people working on the pipeline and export terminal is scheduled to increase to almost 6,000 from fewer than 1,000 at the start of the year.

LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink, partners in the $46-billion pipeline project to move natural gas from northeast B.C. to the province’s North Coast for export to Asia, say the risk of coronavirus spread is being mitigated by the rollout of mandatory COVID testing for all workers, whether they’re symptomatic or not.

To allay fears of potential future outbreaks, company-funded rapid testing is ramping up for workers who live outside the region, with testing in place at airports in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ontario. An LNG Canada spokesperson says the company has already administered antigen tests to 1,700 workers before they boarded charter flights at the Edmonton and Calgary airports.

Dr. David Bowering, a retired chief medical health officer with B.C.’s Northern Health who lives in the region, says the elevated risk of transmission remains.

Bowering also said “it doesn’t feel right” that mega projects like these can afford to “import this deluxe, Cadillac private health system and level of testing,” while the public health system is “rationing COVID testing for people just doing ordinary things like trying to run restaurants and stores.”

Even while operating with reduced staff, the megaproject wasn’t immune to the spread of COVID-19, with four separate outbreaks declared at sites or camps between November and January, for a total of 128 workers infected.

A Coastal GasLink spokesperson said it’s up to public health officials to determine if there’s a need for expanded community testing. LNG Canada, meanwhile, donated $500,000 last year for COVID-19 response measures in Kitimat, Terrace and local Indigenous communities.

Read more about the situation 

Immunization effort for all Manitoba First Nations communities to ramp up soon

Immunization teams will visit Manitoba First Nations to vaccinate entire communities at once, provincial health officials said Friday morning.

Those communities at most risk of flooding and fires or losing winter road access will be prioritized, so that the effort is not complicated by potential spring or summer weather events.

In total, clinics will be set up at 63 First Nations communities, six northern rural municipalities and 47 Northern Affairs communities. Northern Affairs communities include Métis, First Nations and non-Indigenous people.

“We know First Nations people in Manitoba are more at risk of COVID-19 and at younger ages. In addition, many of these communities may face evacuation due to fires and floods or have geographical issues that make it hard to get there,” said Dr. Marcia Anderson, public health lead of the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Coordination Team.

“It’s important to get needles into arms as soon as possible and detailed planning is now underway to schedule vaccinations in these communities.”

These vaccinations will get underway in mid-March, with a goal to finish by mid-May, officials said.

In terms of the province’s overall daily report, new coronavirus cases were at a rate comparable to recent days, with 54 overall.

There are a total of 171 people battling COVID-19 in provincial hospitals, a decrease of 10 from the previous day, while the province marked its 904th coronavirus death, a woman in her 90s treated in the Winnipeg Health Region.

Read more about the pandemic in Manitoba 

Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.

THE SCIENCE

Health Canada moves to fast-track COVID-19 vaccine booster shots that target variants

At least three variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are circulating in Canada and are believed to spread more easily and possibly cause more serious illness.

The existing vaccines have shown reduced effectiveness of varying degrees against the variants of concern according to limited data, but most producers say they are working on new shots to contend with the variants.

Health Canada announced this week it won’t require new clinical trial data from vaccine makers on booster shots being developed to target new variants of COVID-19.

The documents supporting Thursday’s decision note that demanding full clinical trials, as was the case for authorizing the original vaccines, would create a serious delay.

“This may also be problematic from a public health perspective since delay in updating a vaccine, where needed, bears the risk that the virus is evolving even further, potentially making a new vaccine version outdated at the time of approval again,” the document says.

The regulator will rely more heavily on lab tests of blood samples, which can show how many antibodies develop following vaccination. Those antibodies are a good indicator of how well the human body will fight off an infection. The decision should help the regulator authorize the boosters for use in Canada much faster and is in line with the process used to approve new flu vaccines each year.

Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Supriya Sharma, promised in an interview with The Canadian Press this week that there won’t be corners cut on safety in evaluating these new boosters. As well, if a currently approved vaccine should ever be found to be not effective in preventing illness against a new, dominant strain that emerges, they will be pulled from the vaccine supply, she said.

AND FINALLY…

103-year old jazzman, veteran goes with the vaccine flow

Stanley Sepchuk got a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Decarie Square site on the Island of Montreal on Wednesday, cracking jokes from start to finish. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC News)

Stanley Sepchuk ventured outdoors Wednesday with Melody, one of his four children, to get inoculated against the coronavirus at a makeshift vaccine site at Decarie Square in Côte Saint-Luc, Que., on the Island of Montreal.

A joker with a broad smile, Sepchuk said he was looking forward to the vaccine “more or less. Mostly more.”

During Sepchuk’s lifespan, the world has seen both the great flu pandemic that killed millions worldwide from 1918 to 1920, as well as the current coronavirus battle.

In between, Sepchuk’s has been a life of both service and commitment, as well as following his passions.

During the Second World War, Sepchuk served as a trumpeter for the Royal Canadian Air Force Band.

Sepchuk went on to become a popular jazz musician in Montreal, playing his trumpet, trombone and singing, often under the stage name Stan Martin. He and his mates were able to guest with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Oscar Peterson and Louis Armstrong during their playing days.

Even before he got the shot, Sepchuk said he was ready to cap off the long day with some wine.

Read more about Stanley Sepchuk

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