New COVID-19 variants have health officials in a race against time to get vaccine doses into the arms of British Columbians, but a number of delays in shipments has complicated distribution.
CTV Morning Live spoke with Vancouver physician Dr. Rhonda Low on Monday about the new variants and the province's vaccine distribution plan.
The following has been edited for length and clarity. The full interview can be watched in the video player above.
Keri Adams: There's a lot of concern about these new variants and their contagiousness. How much more cautious do we need to be when it comes to variants?
Dr. Rhonda Low: That's the rationale for Dr. Anthony Fauci's recommendation for double-masking when out in public and there's also minimizing your exposure now to 10 to 15 minutes or less in crowded circumstances to minimize your exposure again to aerosolization of viruses. Don't forget, you have to be physically distant with frequent hand washing.
Jason Pires: Do we know what makes these new variants more contagious?
Low: It seems like the spike protein on the surface of the virus has mutated and it's become more efficient at attaching to our cells to cause an infection, so fewer viruses are needed to make us sick.
And then with these variants, the incubation period has also shortened to as little as 12 hours to two days, so more people are infectious at any given time.
Adams: Are we going to continue to see more new variants emerge?
Low: I think we can expect that to happen, unfortunately, because in general, viruses constantly mutate. Some with consequences, others without consequences. For example, one virus that does is the influenza virus and that's why the seasonal flu vaccine may change up from year to year. So viruses do have that self-preservation pressure to mutate.
Pires: The big question is will the vaccines be able to keep up with these multiple variants and will the vaccines work on all of these variants?
Low: Already companies like Moderna and Johnson and Johnson are looking at ways to update their shots and with this new technology of messenger RNA vaccine, that might be quicker and easier to make. Also the regulators are looking at how to green-light these tweaked vaccines quicker to get them into the arms of the public.
But this adds to the pressure of getting as many people vaccinated as soon as possible with our current vaccines because every infected person is one more chance for the virus to mutate, and that increases the chance new variants will emerge.
Adams: Recent studies have found that COVID antibodies can last up to six months, which seems very promising. Does that mean people who have those antibodies won't need to get vaccinated?
Low: A couple of studies have suggested that 80 to 85 per cent of people who have had COVID have antibodies that protect them against the infection, but there are still some unanswered questions. We don't know if these recovered folks can still transmit the virus and therefore (put) others at risk and also whether they're completely protected and there are new variants as well.
So that's why it's recommended that people who have had COVID, they should still get vaccinated starting three months after they've had their infection.
Pires: Let's talk about our vaccination rate compared to the world. Canada's not doing well, we have less than three per cent of the population vaccinated currently. Israel, comparatively, has more than 60 per cent vaccinated. Why is there such a difference?
Low: The prime reason Canada's not doing so well is because we don't have a supply of vaccine. Whereas Israel is doing well for a variety of reasons, partially because it's a relatively small country, they have a digitalized universal health-care system that can easily track data … and that's important to vaccine makers. So Israel made a deal with Pfizer to offer up their data in exchange for a steady supply of vaccine.
Now the good news from all of this is that Israel's data shows the vaccine will work. Where there was a high rate of infection in their country before, their number of new COVID cases has dramatically dropped after vaccination, despite having mutant variant present in most of their country.
So there's some light at the end of the tunnel to help curb this pandemic but at present, we can't afford to have our guard down.