Health Canada has formally approved Moderna’s updated COVID-19 vaccine targeting the Omicron variant.
The vaccine, which has been approved for use in adults aged 18 and older, will become the first COVID-19 vaccine available in Canada to target Omicron in addition to the original strain of the coronavirus.
In a summary of the decision released Thursday, Health Canada said the new vaccine showed a “significantly higher response” to the Omicron BA.1 virus compared to Moderna’s original coronavirus vaccine, officially labeled Spikevax.
While the updated vaccine was developed to target the Omicron BA.1 variant, Health Canada says clinical trials suggest the new vaccine still elicits a “stronger immune response” against the newer Omicron mutations — BA.4 and BA.5 — which are now dominant.
“The results of exploratory analyzes suggest that a second boost with Spikevax Bivalent would provide a better neutralizing antibody response against BA.4/5 compared to a second boost with Spikevax Original,” the decision reads in part.
Health Canada also states that “no new safety issues were identified in the studies compared to the currently approved Spikevax mRNA vaccine.”
The National Immunization Advisory Committee recommends that the updated vaccine be offered to adults who are recommended to receive a booster dose in the fall.
NACI says the vaccine could also be offered to adolescents aged 12 to 17 with “moderate to severe immunocompromising conditions” and those with increased social risk factors.
WATCH: Health Canada Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Supriya Sharma says the updated vaccine will be effective against Omicron
The updated vaccine is a combination of two strains, also known as “bivalent” vaccines. Contains both the original vaccine formulation and protection against the original Omicron BA.1 variant.
The new Moderna shot will be supplied in 50 microgram doses. Half of its content focuses on the original strain of the coronavirus, while the other half focuses on Omicron.
The first shipment of 780,000 doses of the updated vaccine is expected to arrive in Canada on Friday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said. Another 10.5 million doses will be delivered by the end of September.
Deliveries to the provinces and territories that oversee the administration of the vaccines are scheduled to begin next week.
Duclos urged Canadians to sign up quickly for boosters as summer draws to a close.
“This fall is going to be tough, with flu and other respiratory illnesses coming back and people moving indoors,” Duclos said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Vaccines for newer Omicron strains may be coming
Both Moderna and Pfizer have developed even newer bivalent vaccines targeting the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 strains, but the companies have not yet submitted these products for Health Canada approval.
Njoo said that when the government decided to approve Moderna’s BA.1-targeted vaccine, it took into account the tools it has now “versus what could potentially happen in the future.”
“At the end of the day, we are very satisfied that we have a good bivalent vaccine,” added Njoo.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday the approval of bivalent vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that specifically target the newer Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 strains.
Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, said the agency expects to receive an application from Pfizer as early as next week for a bivalent vaccine targeting BA.4 and BA.5.
A fresh submission from Moderna for BA.4 and BA.5 is also expected in the next two weeks, Sharma said.
A spokesperson for Pfizer Canada told CBC News on Wednesday that its submission to Health Canada for a bivalent vaccine targeting BA.1 is still under review and approval has not yet been granted.
WATCH: Infectious disease doctor says Canadians shouldn’t wait for updated boosters
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, said the approval of the vaccine is an important step in Canada’s fight against COVID-19 — even though the injection was developed for a strain that is no longer widely circulated.
“I think it’s really important now that people know that the BA.1 vaccine will still really improve immunity against the variants that are circulating,” Rasmussen told CBC News.
Another expert said that Canadians should not wait for the perfect and most up-to-date vaccine, as they will likely need repeated vaccinations against COVID-19 in the future.
“This protection is not going to last. This is not going to be the last vaccine you get. So prepare until we have vaccines that are better, to get vaccinated probably every six months,” said Dawn Bowdish, an immunologist at McMaster University.
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