In October, we talked about what to expect from COVID-19 with Dr. Fahad Razak, a general internist and epidemiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital. The former scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table spoke with us again about the latest bivalent vaccines – and the importance of getting a flu shot along with a COVID-19 booster.
When you last spoke with us, you discussed the possibility of an eighth COVID wave or a spike in the seventh one. Is the current situation what you expected?
We're seeing a rise in hospital admissions due to COVID-19. We're not seeing many people requiring ventilators or intensive care, like in earlier waves. And we don’t anticipate a significant increase in hospitalizations unless they’re driven by a new variant of the virus. Still, this is a critical time to take all the steps possible to protect yourself, as our healthcare system is under enormous strain.
Health Canada recently approved the Pfizer-BioNTech bivalent vaccine, which targets the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants. How different is this from the Moderna COVID-19 bivalent booster, and is one better than the other?
This new vaccine is great news – it provides another option on top of the Moderna bivalent vaccine. Both protect against the original virus and the newly circulating Omicron variants. But Moderna’s – which has more human trial evidence behind it – targets the Omicron version that we saw earlier this year, while Pfizer’s targets the versions that are now common in Canada, the United States and other countries. Because we don’t have any clinical studies that compare them, we can’t say either of these vaccines is superior at this time. What’s clear, though, is that they both provide improved protection against the original version of COVID-19 and the major forms of Omicron.
The most important thing is to get the booster now if you’re eligible. I encourage people to take whichever bivalent vaccine they prefer – or whatever one is available to them. Considering how much virus is circulating in Ontario right now, you’re better off getting protection now than waiting for vaccine evidence to emerge, showing one is “better” than the other.
Since we’re still contending with COVID-19, how urgent is it for Ontarians to get the flu vaccine – in addition to a COVID-19 booster – this fall and winter?
Getting the flu vaccine is important this year for two reasons. Clinically speaking, we've had very little influenza exposure in the last couple of years. I didn’t see any flu cases during this time, but now suddenly, we’re seeing them on the hospital’s wards. The flu is here, and it is spreading. In fact, data from the Southern hemisphere, which typically experiences flu waves before us, suggests this could be a very tough year. Australia just had its worst flu season in the last five years.
Secondly, our hospital systems across the province are struggling right now. We have very little capacity remaining. Anything that individuals or communities can do to prevent infection and reduce their need for hospital services is valuable. That means our system can better treat not only infections like COVID or the flu, but also patients who have heart attacks, cancer and car accidents – all the things we need our hospitals for.
Because the protection you get from a flu vaccine doesn’t occur instantly, I strongly encourage people to get their flu shot now. While older people can get an enhanced version of the vaccine, everyone else can get a normal version, which I received recently. It’s part of a layered strategy: staying up to date with your flu and COVID-19 vaccinations, and then taking additional steps like wearing masks in indoor public settings when possible. These measures will greatly enhance your protection against respiratory viral illnesses.
“Our hospital systems across the province are struggling right now. We have very little capacity remaining.”
“Considering how much virus is circulating in Ontario right now, you’re better off getting protection now than waiting for vaccine evidence to emerge.”
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