A new COVID-19 variant, called BA.2, may soon become the dominant strain in Canada, as officials warn of a potential 6th wave of infections. Tarik Aeta, Healthcare Analyst, TD Asset Management, gives an update on the state of the virus.
- It wasn't long after the provinces started lifting their COVID-19 restrictions that a new variant started to appear calling BA.2, and it took hold threatening a sixth wave of infections. Here to tell us what he is watching and perhaps what we should be watching as we go ahead, Tarik Aeta. He's a health care analyst with TD Asset Management. Tarik, it's always good to have you with us. I know that officially now, I think we're in a sixth wave. What should we expect?
- Yeah, so we've entered the sixth wave in Canada since the middle of March. And this uptick in cases is really being driven by two things. So first, across the country, a lot of COVID restrictions have been lifted, including masking, which is naturally driving more spread. And second, as you mentioned, we've seen the rise of a second Omicron variant called BA.2, which is modestly more infectious. But all that being said, I wouldn't be too alarmed about this sixth wave. And this is because we are fundamentally in a very different spot right now versus prior waves.
First of all, over 80% of Canadians are fully vaccinated. And half of us have gotten a booster. And when you combine this with significant natural immunity from the recent Omicron wave, population immunity has never been this high. So all the data suggests that this wave will be a milder one than the last one.
- What should we know about BA.2? You mentioned, it's more mildly more infectious, but you also mentioned all the good things that are in place right now. So what should we know?
- Yeah, so BA.2 is just a sub variant of Omicron. Compared to BA.1, which is the original Omicron, BA.2 has 28 additional mutations. And the data suggests it's 30% to 50% more infectious, but no more dangerous. Because it is more infectious, we are seeing BA.2 become the dominant global strain with over 80% of COVID cases globally now coming from BA.2. But again, yeah, I'm not too concerned, given we've just gone through a big Omicron wave. It provided natural immunity to a big part of the population, not just here in Canada, but globally as well, which likely is going to make this wave milder as mentioned.
- We're hearing more, I know, just in Ontario for people who live here, that the fourth booster is being made available to those who are immunocompromised, over 60. When you look at boosters and even vaccine development, are you expecting them to roll out more? And are you expecting to see more in the vaccine development? Could we see one that's effective to all mutations at some point?
- Yeah. So yeah, definitely, fourth doses are coming in the US. They were approved at the end of March. In Canada, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization is also recommending a fourth booster for those over 70. And Ontario's rolling them out for those over 60.
And in terms of vaccine development, yeah, both Pfizer and Moderna are working on updated vaccines to tackle Omicron. Pfizer and BioNTech will have those clinical trials for us in April. And then that data can then go to the regulators. But given the existing vaccines still work fairly well and hospitalizations have gone down significantly, there isn't the urgency to get those out the door.
And I would say also, just lastly, just more interestingly, we'll have an updated timeline on a COVID plus flu shot. Moderna is working on one right now. We'll be going into phase one later this year. But that's going to be a product that's going to take two years to develop, so don't expect the COVID plus flu shot at your local pharmacy anytime soon, but something to watch for in the next two years.
- I know you're also watching antivirals. What are you hearing there?
- Yeah. So yeah, when it comes to the antivirals, Pfizer PAXLOVID, as mentioned before, is a game changer, given it reduces the risk of hospitalization by 89% when given to high-risk patients early. But supplies are very limited. So in the first quarter, Pfizer only made enough doses for six million patients. That number is going to increase enough doses for 45 million patients by the time we reach the third quarter.
So in the interim, most countries, including Canada, are really reserving PAXLOVID for high-risk individuals. So those are individuals that are either unvaccinated, individuals over 70 years old, or those who have multiple underlying conditions.
- Last question, Tarik. What will you be watching, just to understand the severity and potential dangers of new variants? I know we're watching closely what's happening in China with lots of the country getting shut down. What are you paying attention to?
- Yeah. So yeah, so going forward, it's inevitable that we'll continue to get more variants as time goes on. The key thing to watch with these variants is just how much more transmissible they are as we get data. But otherwise, if we take a step back and look at the big picture, the main takeaway I'd leave with viewers is that COVID is transitioning from pandemic to endemic in 2022. And the combination of vaccines and antivirals means that society is finally in a position where we'll be able to live with COVID going forward. So even if you get a new variant in the quarters ahead, by no means are we going back to step one.
- Tarik, always a pleasure. Thank you.
- Thanks Kim.