British Columbia is rolling out a new COVID vaccine booster next week targeting the Omicron variant amid elevated cases and uncertainty about the pandemic’s future trajectory.
The Moderna SpikeVax bivalent booster, approved by Health Canada last week, targets the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID subvariant that surfaced in November.
All people over 18 and high-risk 12 to 17-year-olds are recommended to receive a bivalent booster six months after their last dose and no sooner than three months after a recent COVID-19 infection.
“Now we need to say yes, even if you were infected, you need to get that first, or second, or third dose of vaccine, because it’s going to give you that stronger protection,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“We are not yet at a point where we can let our guard down.”
Booster doses have proven to be essential in protecting against severe infection from the Omicron subvariant family, which has been dominant in B.C. since December.
It is estimated the bivalent booster shots help mount an antibody response against Omicron about 1.5 times greater than the original vaccine formula and offers about 90-per-cent protection against severe disease, compared to 86 per cent from a booster of older vaccine.
While the United States has opted to authorize booster shots tailored to the latest variants, Henry said the vaccine approved in Canada is still extremely effective.
Henry said it was important to roll out the protection as flu season approaches and older and vulnerable people who received fourth doses in the spring are awaiting a booster.
And with the fragile health-care system already in crisis, it is important to help keep people out of hospital, Henry said.
“We’re still in a very uncertain time,” she said. “There is a lot of transmission globally, we do still have the chance of new variants that escape vaccine protection, potentially.”
The province expects to offer the first 110,000 doses of vaccine by Sept. 19 in health authority-run mass immunization clinics and more than 500 pharmacies across B.C.
British Columbians will be invited to book their fall boosters through the provincial Get Vaccinated system. People will be able to receive the COVID-19 booster and flu shot at the same time starting in late October.
The rollout will prioritize high-risk people including those over 60, Indigenous people 18 and older, immunocompromised people, health-care workers and people living and working in congregate settings like social housing, group homes and corrections.
The fall booster push comes as adult booster uptake and immunization rates among children under 11 have stalled.
About 92 per cent of people over 12 have received the primary two-dose vaccine series or its equivalent in B.C.
But only about 60.2 per cent of eligible people over 12 have received a booster, which can increase protection from Omicron-induced serious illness by as much as 40 per cent.
Less than half of children five to 11 have both doses, and just 8.4 per cent of the province’s children between six months and four years old have received a dose since they became available in August.
Henry urged people to get vaccinated and receive a booster as soon as they are eligible.