Over a span of one week, preliminary results from late-stage clinical trials of two promising coronavirus vaccines have ushered in renewed hope in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, U.S drugmaker Moderna announced that its vaccine has proven to be  94.5 per cent effective in protecting people from the COVID-19 disease, according to an interim analysis.

This followed Pfizer and BioNTech’s statement last week in which it said early data for its candidate suggested it was 90 per cent effective at preventing the virus.

Canada has already secured some 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from a wide range of different manufacturers. But how will the vaccines be distributed and with limited supplies in the initial stages, who should get them first?

The general consensus among health experts and government agencies is that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, who are at a greater risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19, should get immunized first.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), has identified key populations that also include health care workers, caregivers in long-term care facilities and all essential front-line responders essential in managing the COVID-19 response, according to preliminary recommendations.

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People who are unable to work remotely and are at risk of exposure, like police, firefighters and grocery story staff, are also among the key groups in NACI’s recommendations.

Other essential workers will be defined by the provinces and territories with the federal government, but the final decision will depend on the data and vaccine efficacy, Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, NACI chair, told Global News.

“If, for instance, we decided ahead of time that the elderly population should come first, but we see looking at the trials results that that population does not have a great efficacy, but that it could be more efficacious in another population likeyounger, healthy individuals, it’s very possible that at that point in time, things switch,” she said.

Raymond Tellier, a microbiologist and infectious diseases expert at McGill University, told Global News that people working in transportation services and the food industry should be prioritized before a mass rollout to the general population.

“You also want to vaccinate essential workers who were involved during confinement or a lockdown – people that need to continue their work in order to make sure that the basic services are maintained,” he said.

“If you want to interrupt the transmission of the virus most efficiently, you want to vaccinate people that are in contact with a lot of people.”

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government was developing a “very careful plan” to make sure the vaccines are distributed to the most vulnerable people and frontline health workers.

“We are busy establishing different logistical approaches for the range of vaccines that will be hopefully arriving in Canada in the coming months,” he said during a press conference.

Logistical challenges

Given the “significant logistical challenge” of transportation and distribution, the government may seek assistance from the military, Trudeau said.

During the same press conference, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said provinces are currently working on their individual plans to identify where the vaccines will be deployed and sufficient freezers are being purchased to help with the storage.

Both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines need to be kept in cold storage and have specific temperature requirements.

Pfizer’s vaccine must be shipped and stored at -70 C. It can be stored for up to five days at standard refrigerator temperatures, or for up to 15 days in a thermal shipping box.

Moderna expects the vaccine to be stable at normal fridge temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36 to 48 degrees F) for 30 days and it can be stored for up to six months at -20 C.

If the vaccines are approved by Health Canada following the review of the clinical trials, the country is expecting to receive its first shipment early next year.

But the doses will arrive in different batches, Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said on Tuesday.

And when can the general public expect to receive the vaccine?

Njoo said: “Certainly, we’re looking at hopefully covering the vast majority of the population by the end of next year.”

— With files from Carolyn Jarvis, Global News and Reuters. 

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