Ask the Pharmacist

Q) I understand that the new Covid vaccines are now somewhat available. I was wondering if you could answer a question I had about them?

A) The new Covid vaccines are now in Ontario on a limited basis and will be rolled out en masse starting September 26th. Many other pharmacies will soon be receiving these new versions (some already have them but that seems to be difficult to tell from the Public Health website) and booking appointments thereafter. Please do not call yet to be put on a list, as appropriate information will be posted when the time comes (this advice may not apply to other pharmacies who may well be booking already).

This vaccine is generating a lot of buzz because it truly seems to be new and improved. It is made by Moderna (Pfizer has a version as well that is expected to arrive in the very near future) and uses the same mRNA technology that the original vaccines used to such great effect. These shots contain the recipe to identify the “spike protein” of the original virus along with that of the the more highly transmissible Omicron strain BA 1 (hence the word bi since they code for two spike proteins) that played so much havoc with our health care system back in the fall. Note that this is different from the version the U.S. is given out which is coded for BA 4 & BA 5 (along with the original virus version). The BA 4 & Ba 5 subtypes make up approximately 95% of the virus currently circulating in Canada whereas the BA 1 represents only about 0.1%.

Two points on this. The version we currently have still does generate a “good” immune response against BA 4 & 5. Secondly, the U.S. version should be here shortly. It is also possible, but not yet proven, that these new bivalent vaccines may offer protection against newer but still uncommon strains such as BA 4 6 and BA 275. Right now the vaccine is available to the most vulnerable populations which includes:

· Those over age 70
· People living in congregated settings such as retirement homes, long-term care homes and others that provide assisted-living and health services
· First Nation, Inuit and Metis and their non-Indigenous household members over the age of 18
· Moderately to severely immunocompromised individuals (12 and older)
· Pregnant individuals (18 plus)
· Heath care workers (18 plus)

As mentioned earlier, the bivalent dose will be available for anyone over the age of 18 as of September 26th and those appointments can be booked online on the provincial government’s website and the bivalent version will be given, if available (and that last word is the key one). As with any new product, there seems to be a lot of questions circulating around so I will attempt to address some of them here.

What ages can use the bivalent vaccines? While Health Canada has only green-lighted this vaccine for ages 18 years and older, this same vaccine has been approved in the States for those 12 and above.

How much better do they work? We still don’t have enough data yet to say just how effective these new versions are but scientists seem to be certain that they offer greater protection against COVID. Data obtained from blood samples support this as there is a large increase in the numbers of protective antibodies they produce against BA 4 and BA 5 when compared to our older vaccines.

When should I get one of these shots? These bivalent boosters are more effective when a period of time has passed between your last shot and this one. It can be given in as little as two months after your last booster but evidence suggests extending the time out to four to six months later might be better timing. With respect to a recent COVID infection, you may want to wait for 8 weeks to pass to allow your immune system to build back up and get a maximal response to the vaccine.

What if I never had the original vaccine? The bivalent vaccine has a lower amount of mRNA than the vaccines used in the primary series which were originally rolled out in 2020. As such, you must receive the primary series before a booster shot with a bivalent one will be effective.

Will the bivalent vaccines replace the other boosters? In time, yes.

What if I received only mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer or non mRNA vaccines made by other companies? Vaccines can be mixed and matched without a loss of effectiveness or an increase in side effects. Anyone who has safely undergone the primary series with any of the available vaccines can also use Moderna’s new bivalent vaccine.

Are there any new risks or side effects associated with these new vaccines? Nothing new is expected and so far that has proven to be the case in the many

countries which approved these vaccines before Canada did (such as the U.S. and the U.K. which approved it back in mid August)

What about kids under 12? Additional testing and trials are still going on in this age group so these vaccines will not be approved until these are completed. Children 6 months to under 5 years can get their primary series (but booster doses are not approved for this age group as of yet) and those aged 5 and above can be given booster shots, just not one from the bivalent supply.

Do I need to separate my flu shot from any of the COVID boosters? Some experts feel we may be in line for what is being called the “twindemic” which refers to surges in the infection rate of both the influenza and the COVID viruses at about the same time. Both types of vaccine can be just as safely and effectively administered at the same time as they could be apart from each other. The exception to this is in kids under the age of 5 where it is recommended that the two vaccines be separated by 14 days.

As time goes on, new questions and concerns will crop up. Please do not hesitate to contact your pharmacist.