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This week’s COVID-19 vaccine news: The Canadian blame game, the two-dose edict — and London’s snake-oil salesman

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COVID-19 vaccines are finally here, but the challenge to get a dose to everyone in Canada who wants one — and hopefully, bring the pandemic to heel in the process — has only just begun.

This week was marked by sparring between federal and provincial leaders who each put the blame on the other for what has been criticized as a slow start to the vaccination effort, even as officials argued that efforts are beginning to ramp up.

As questions swirl about how to speed up the process, some have wondered about whether second doses could be delayed or even done away with — though Health Canada says it is sticking with its recommendations.

Meanwhile, if you’ve been selling fraudulent vaccines to seniors, the London police want to talk to you.

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As the world continues down the road to mass vaccination, here’s what you need to know.

Research suggests Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine effective against new U.K. strain

New coronavirus variants discovered in the U.K. and South Africa have sparked fears that the vaccines now rolling out around the world would be ineffective against these highly transmissible new strains.

But this week Pfizer released some early results that suggest its dose is still able to fight off strains with a key mutation called N501Y.

It’s important to note that this is just one of the mutations found in these variants that scientists are watching, and the study is not yet peer-reviewed, which is the process of vetting that all reputable scientific findings must undergo.

But the study’s authors say it’s promising that, so far, the vaccines have stood up against many of the changes in these new variants.

“So we’ve now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact. That’s the good news,” said Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s top viral vaccine scientists, according to Reuters.

“That doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.”

The study was done on blood taken from people who had been given the vaccine. It did not look at all of the mutations found in any of the variants, but researchers said they plan to continue running tests and will have more information within weeks.

Health Canada sticks to two-dose recommendation

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Both of the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for use in Canada require two doses, given a few weeks apart, and federal guidelines won’t budge on that, officials told the Star in an email this week.

While people would have some protection after their first dose, the full benefits aren’t believed to kick in until about a week after the second dose.

Still, some have wondered whether it would make more sense to give more people just one dose, in order to speed up the vaccine rollout. Here in Canada, retired Gen. Rick Hillier, who is heading Ontario’s vaccine task force, asked the government to look at just that.

“What I’m asking is Health Canada have a look at doing that, and saying maybe with the high efficiency that protects you in the first needle, it would be best for the entire population if we went just with a one-shot vaccination program with Moderna,” Hillier told reporters at a news conference before the new year.

But in a email this week, a Health Canada spokesperson said that both the Modern and Pfizer doses are approved as two-dose treatments, based on evidence from the manufacturers about how to get optimum results, and “that will not change.”

However, the spokesperson did note that the provinces and territories can make their own decision to use a drug or vaccine differently that what is recommended — a practice known as “off-label use”— if they want to.

World Health Organization experts said Friday that the two Pfizer doses could be spaced out by as much as six weeks if needed.

The question remains, though, of whether health officials should hold back a confirmed supply of second doses, to make sure people who got their first stay on schedule.

A brief from Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory table urged the province to use all the doses it receives, without holding any back. It argues that this strategy doesn’t mean people won’t get their second doses; the interval between the two shots just might get a little longer.

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Federal government and provinces point fingers in sluggish vaccine roll out

By the end of day Thursday, almost a quarter-million vaccine doses had been administered to Canadians.

But with countries such as the U.K., the U.S. and Israel all outpacing Canada in terms of the number of doses per capita, our response here at home has been criticized as sluggish by some.

Whose fault that is depends on whom you ask.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters he was “frustrated to see vaccines in freezers and not in people’s arms,” referring to how provinces had not used all the vaccine distributed by Ottawa.

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According to the Star’s vaccine tracker, every province and territory has received more vaccine doses than they’ve been able to give out.

But provincial leaders fired back, saying that vaccination campaigns are scaling up, and they’ll soon work through their stores — and need more.

“I know the federal government is doing everything (it) can,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday, “but we are moving 15,000 vaccinations yesterday alone, and that’s just going to continue to climb.”

Pregnant, breastfeeding and immunocompromized people can get the vaccine in Ontario

While these groups were previously excluded because they hadn’t participated in clinical trials for the vaccine, new guidance from Ontario’s minister of health says they can make their own choice.

While they won’t have to get signoff from a medical professional, they will have to atttest that they’ve discussed the risks with a care provider. Because some groups weren’t included in clinical trials, questions remain about how the vaccine may affect them, but the new guidance says that people can make their own decision after discussing the risks and benefits.

Dr. Tali Bogler, chair of family medicine obstetrics at St. Michael’s Hospital, has pushed for people to be able to make their own choices.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” she told the Star. “We know that the risks are high in pregnant people with COVID, so this is also going to be safer,” especially as the majority of health-care workers in Canada are women, many of them of child-bearing age.

Controversy broke out this week about vaccinating inmates.

What about prison inmates?

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As health officials around the world continue to grapple with who should be next in line for vaccines, federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole sparked an outcry Tuesday when he took aim at plans to vaccinate inmates.

In a tweet, he argued that “not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker.”

There have multiple severe outbreaks in federal prisons and provincial jails — among both prisoners and staff — since early in the pandemic.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has pushed back on criticisms, arguing that the most vulnerable inmates meet the criteria for priority vaccinations.

“There are some individuals within our federal institutions who are elderly, who have existing health conditions, and as a consequence are at a much more significant risk (from COVID-19), very similar to those elderly individuals living in long-term care facilities,” he said at a Wednesday news conference.

In an email to federal correctional employees Tuesday evening, the commissioner of Correctional Service Canada said 600 older and vulnerable inmates will receive doses of the Moderna vaccine.

Purveyor of fake vaccines sought in London

Anytime you have a massive effort that involves a lot of money and most of the world, you’re going to end up with a little bit of crime.

Police in the U.K. are searching for a man they say injected a 92-year-old woman with a fake COVID-19 vaccine and charged her 160 British pounds — or about $275.

According to the Guardian, the woman said the fraudster had jabbed her in the arm with a “dart-like implement.”

Local police said it’s not known what substance, if any, was used, but the woman was given a clean bill of health after a visit to the hospital.

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