The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 9

Medical workers in Nairobi, Kenya, protest outside the Health Ministry over the death of Dr. Stephen Mogusu, 28, who died of COVID-19. Demonstrators paid tribute to Kenyan medical staff who have died from the coronavirus and demanded better working conditions and protection from the government. (The Associated Press)

Health Canada approves COVID-19 vaccine for use

Health Canada announced on Wednesday it would grant approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine after a two-month review of clinical trial data, a key step toward launching the largest inoculation campaign in the country’s history. In doing so, Canada becomes just the third country in the world to authorize the vaccine, after the United Kingdom and Bahrain.

Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical adviser at Health Canada, characterized it as “an exceptional day for Canada.”

“The efficacy of the vaccine was established to be approximately 95 per cent. The vaccine was well tolerated by participants and has no important safety concerns,” the agency said in its decision. “The benefit-to-risk assessment for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is considered favourable.”

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccination logistics at the national operations centre, said at a news conference in Ottawa he expects the initial run of shots will be shipped from a Pfizer plant in Belgium on Friday. Because the Pfizer product is stored in ultra-cold temperatures, it is being shipped directly to 14 locations of use throughout Canada to limit movement and keep the vaccine stable.

“We expect vaccines to arrive as early as Monday,” Fortin said, adding it’s “totally possible” some Canadians could get their shots by the middle of next week.

While the Pfizer vaccine has been given the necessary approvals, regulators conceded that the clinical trial data could not establish the long-term efficacy of the vaccine. With recent polls showing that a sizable number of Canadians will refuse a vaccine or wait some time before lining up for a shot, Cole Pinnow, the president of Pfizer Canada, told CBC’s The Current on Wednesday he wants Canadians to be assured the product is safe.

The approval comes a day ahead of a public hearing in which an advisory panel will make its recommendation to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with authorization for emergency use expected not long after.

Click below to watch more from The National

Experts say Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout needs something it doesn’t currently have: a dynamic federal vaccine registry that can gather granular data about who has been vaccinated, who needs to be and how they reacted. There are only several, unlinked provincial databases in the country. 3:29

IN BRIEF

Quebec cuts back on medical procedures because of caseload, steps up enforcement of COVID-19 infractions

Quebec is once again cutting back on non-urgent surgeries and procedures to free up beds and staff for the expected influx of COVID-19 patients, but experts say these delays could lead to long-term consequences.

Operating room activities were ordered cut by 50 per cent this week provincewide, and two-thirds of beds are to be freed up for COVID-19 patients.

“People’s conditions will deteriorate over time,” said Dr. Arsene Basmadjian, who heads the province’s cardiologists’ association and practises at the Montreal Heart Institute. “Other people will not get a diagnosis early enough.”

There are more than 800 COVID patients being treated in the province’s hospitals, and more are expected in the coming week as the daily number of infections continues to hover well above 1,000. But the issue is not just bed capacity, as ongoing staff shortages, combined with medical workers on leave, have taken a toll.

Orthopedic surgeries, screening tests and follow-up appointments will all be delayed, says Dr. Diane Francoeur, president of the Quebec Federation of Medical Specialists.

“It also means that there are cancers that will not be diagnosed during the relief period,” said Francoeur. “Cancer does not take a break.”

Meanwhile, Premier François Legault said Wednesday the province would step up enforcement of COVID-19 measures. Police and inspectors from the province’s workplace safety board will be instructed to issue tickets, which can go up to $6,000, to individuals and businesses that break the laws, Legault said.

Read more about what’s happening in the province 

Alberta seeing rising numbers of cases in long-term care homes

Alberta successfully curbed a surge in cases among senior citizens in the spring, many of whom were infected in supportive-living or long-term care homes. Another surge in the summer was also beaten back.

But the province, which announced its strictest measures since the early days of the pandemic on Tuesday, is not as fortunate as winter approaches.

Back in September, Alberta was recording fewer than a dozen new cases per week among people aged 80 and over. Last week, there were more than 400. More Albertans in this age range have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in November and December than during the entire rest of the pandemic

As of Tuesday, 146 long-term care and supportive-living facilities had active outbreaks. On average over the past week, there have been more than 46 new daily cases per 100,000 people in the 80-plus age range, more than five times the rate during the peak of the spring and summer surges.

“I would anticipate, of course, that with rising numbers in that very vulnerable population, it may well be an indication of an increase in the most tragic outcome — in terms of deaths,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said Tuesday.

The provincial NDP is calling on the province to start administering rapid COVID-19 tests twice a week to every resident and staff member in long-term care facilities.

“To be blunt, if we can test hockey players each and every day, if we put value on doing that, then surely we can do the same or better for residents who are living in fear in continuing care,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said.

Read more about the situation in Alberta 

Several recent outbreaks in Saskatchewan linked to hockey, curling leagues

Five curling clubs and at least 17 hockey teams or leagues have had COVID-19 outbreaks since Nov. 13, according to the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s (SHA’s) outbreak list, 10 of which occurred after a sports suspension was in effect.

Beginning on Nov. 27, all team sports and group activities were suspended until at least Dec. 18. But athletes and dancers 18 years old or younger can keep practising in groups up to eight, assuming masks are worn and at least three metres of distance is maintained at all times. The most recent sports-related case reporting was declared on Dec. 5 for the Adult Safe Hockey League in Saskatoon.

While a couple of the outbreaks were linked to events outside the sporting environment, the typical indoor rink creates an environment that allows air to fester and germs to spread, said Ryan Demmer, University of Minnesota associate professor of epidemiology and community health. Cold air drops toward the ice, but the boards trap the air on the ice surface. Players are then moving quickly, breathing heavily and within close proximity of each other in air that isn’t being circulated, he said.

Adds Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, University of Saskatchewan professor of community health and epidemiology: “Hockey players don’t necessarily keep their mouths shut when they’re careening down the length of the ice … and if they happen to be positive, they will be expelling this virus.” Dressing rooms could also provide conditions for virus spread, experts say.

It was not clear if the sports suspension will continue past Dec. 18 or be altered in any way. CBC News reached out to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health for comment, but had yet to receive a response.

Read the latest on the virus in Saskatchewan 

Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.

THE SCIENCE

AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine data leaves vexing question about dosage

AstraZeneca and Oxford University have more work to do to confirm whether their COVID-19 vaccine can be 90 per cent effective, peer-reviewed data published in The Lancet showed on Tuesday, potentially slowing its eventual rollout in the fight against the pandemic.

The Lancet study gave few extra clues about why efficacy was 62 per cent for trial participants given two full doses, but 90 per cent for a smaller sub-group given a half, then a full dose. Adding to the uncertainty: Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said giving different doses to some trial participants was “unplanned.”

Less than six per cent of U.K. trial participants were given the lower dose regimen and none of them were over 55, meaning more research will be needed to investigate the vaccine’s efficacy in older people who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19.

Pooling the results, overall efficacy was 70.4 per cent, the data shows, and the results seen so far are above the 50 per cent efficacy minimum set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and German partner BioNTech and from Moderna have reported efficacy levels of more than 90 per cent in late-stage trials.

Mene Pangalos, head of AstraZeneca’s non-oncology research and development, said more results in the ongoing trials may provide the needed clarity without resorting to a costly new trial, as the company previously said was likely.

The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is seen as particularly important to tackling the pandemic in the developing world, as it would be cheaper and easier to distribute than the two current early vaccine contenders in the West, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. It is also one of the vaccines the Canadian government has struck a deal for, pending regulatory approval.

Regarding that approval, an AstraZeneca official believes in the applicable countries it will occur “any time from the end of this year to early next year.”

AND FINALLY…

William Robertson, Canadian veteran, dead at 97 of COVID-19 causes

Janice Robertson holds a picture of her father, William Cryle Robertson, who died from COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

William Cryle Robertson served his country in a lengthy and distinguished career with the Canadian Army, earning accolades and medals along his way. On Nov. 17, the former colonel died from COVID-19 at the age of 97 at Burnaby Hospital in British Columbia.

From the liberation of Holland to peacekeeping in Gaza, Robertson wore many hats within the military, including instructing soldiers how to parachute.

But to his daughter Janice, he was just dad.

“I only knew my father as this old guy who was kind and everyone loved him,” she said.

While the end of his journey wasn’t the best — his daughter believes his decline was accelerated by COVID-19 regulations that prevented his companions from entering the facility where he lived — she has been overwhelmed at how revered her father was, as news of his death travelled all the way through the Department of Defence and the condolences began to pour in.

He received numerous commendations and medals throughout his military career, including for risking his life in April 1952 by bringing back the bodies of two fellow soldiers during the Korean War.

“Although frequently sniped at by enemy small arms and occasionally mortared, this officer persisted in his tasks at all times,” his commanding officer wrote then. “His cheerful courage and devotion to duty have been an inspiration to the men under his command.”

In recognition of his service and his life, Robertson will receive a military funeral at the end of June in Kamloops, B.C.

As a former member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, Robertson will have his name listed in the 2020 edition of the Patrician’s Last Post section at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa.

Read more about Col. Robertson’s life

Find out more about COVID-19

Still looking for more information on the pandemic? Read more about COVID-19’s impact on life in Canada, or reach out to us at covid@cbc.ca if you have any questions.

If you have symptoms of the illness caused by the coronavirus, here’s what to do in your part of the country.

For full coverage of how your province or territory is responding to COVID-19, visit your local CBC News site.

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