Gabe Boiswart called it curiosity. Wherever he goes, people want to know: Why haven’t you vaccinated yet?
The short answer is he can’t wait to get his COVID shot.
Problem? The vaccine to which he already feels a brand loyalty – about which he has spent hours reading foreign news reports and research studies – is not yet authorized in Canada.
For months, Boiswart, who lives in Sterling, Ont., has waited for Health Canada to flag off a vaccine candidate made by Novavax, a Maryland company that submitted its final data to the federal government back in January. This happened almost a week after Canada announced a contract to purchase up to 76 million doses.
It is one of seven vaccines Canada has purchased that is still in the development stage, and unlike Pfizer and Moderna, global pioneers in the race, the vaccine does not use mRNA.
This is a more traditional way of making vaccines, and one that he feels more comfortable with. “I’m not an anti-vaxxer; we want to get vaccinated,” he says. “People are jumping on me for it, and trust me, I’m hearing about it everywhere.
“I want to be in the same camp everyone else is in, it’s hard being an outsider,” he says.
“We think it’s safer.”
About 70 percent of people in the country have been fully vaccinated, a year after the first plane landed on Canada’s runway with small vials of the COVID vaccine. But as the delta version continues to spread, experts say the numbers are going to be even higher if the pandemic comes to an end.
The adults who live there are a diverse group with different motivations. Some people who haven’t rolled up their sleeves yet are staunchly anti-vaxxers, who are unlikely to change their minds. But still more holdouts have their own, complicated reasons for choosing not to take the shot just yet.
Among them are people like Boisvert, who yearn for vaccination but want to make their own decision about the shot of choice.
The idea received a high-profile boost last week from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who called on the federal government to import more doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, saying government officials had heard of those wanted to take it.
While Kenney, whose province has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, was unable to specify how many people had pushed for Johnson & Johnson doses, he called on the federal government to import more.
He said Alberta, along with British Columbia and Saskatchewan, were seeking about 50,000 more doses. While none have yet been used in the country, Canada is technically entitled to up to 38 million doses under an advance purchase agreement, although 10 million of those are earmarked for poor countries.
“At the end of the day, if there were some people who have done their research and concluded they would just take J and J, that provides significant security, and we want to help give them that,” Kenny said.
Federal officials have said they are working on it.
Generally speaking, all vaccines work by teaching your body what the virus looks like, and preparing it to fight the real thing later. When it comes to warding off the coronavirus, most people do so by showing their immune systems what the spiked pieces of virus, called spike proteins, look like.
But the specific approach of each vaccine varies slightly.
Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA, which means injecting a small protein recipe into your body that prompts your body to make its own. While this is the first time vaccines using this technology have been authorized for human use, scientists have been away from the technology for a decade.
Johnson & Johnson, on the other hand, chose a viral vector, and uses a different virus to sneak a bit of the harmless coronavirus genetic material into your cells. Meanwhile, Novavax created a protein sub-unit vaccine that injects you with only the protein.
Ontario family physician Dr. Tara Kiran, who has spent months answering any questions about vaccinating her precocious patients, says choice hasn’t been a big factor, except for a few people who are at Pfizer. feel more comfortable with, given the company’s positioning long history.
That said, people don’t see a problem choosing it if the supply makes it possible.
“I think at this point we’ll need a multi-pronged approach,” she says, “because it’s so heterogeneous, that’s the population that’s left. Maybe for some of them it will help.”
“If we have, there is certainly no harm and only benefit from giving to them.”
Of course, at this time, there are no other vaccines available.
Novavax is not yet authorized by Health Canada, while Johnson & Johnson was greenled but never distributed. The first shipment of 300,000 doses in June was rejected due to contamination issues at the US plant where they were made.
Meanwhile, doctors warn Moderna and Pfizer’s supplements are now doomed as interest has waned.
When Canada began buying potential vaccines last summer, Boisvert began doing its research.
The Novavax method is a more traditional approach to making vaccines, and it is one with which Boisvert feels comfortable. If anything, he is disappointed by the lack of answers from the government as to why Novavax is not being distributed yet.
“I keep reading about Novavax every day, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for there to be problems, and just not having problems,” he says. Publicly available test results show that the supplements work and have minimal side effects.
The decision to get vaccinated is not something a Boisvert takes lightly. The father of four children says his wife has a history of heart problems in the family, which alerts him to the risk of myocarditis – essentially inflammation of the heart – that is sometimes caused by mRNA vaccines.
According to Health Canada, the overall rate of myocarditis is about one in 100,000 among those receiving Pfizer and one in 50,000 among those receiving Moderna.
In a statement, Health Canada said it has received preclinical and clinical information about the Novavax vaccine and is looking forward to more information about the company’s manufacturing plan.
“A decision will be made after the manufacturer has submitted all required information and thoroughly evaluated by Health Canada,” the statement said.
“As the review is still ongoing, it is not possible to predict when a regulatory decision will be made.”
Novavax has already applied a week ago for authorization in several jurisdictions, including the World Health Organization, but has not yet been authorized by any major country.
Boisvert says he gets questions — fangs — wherever he goes, especially from seniors who want to know why they haven’t been vaccinated yet. He says he still feels a duty to protect the community from COVID – he wears a mask, keeps his distance, and follows vaccine passport rules. He is relieved that he can at least go to church.
“I don’t want to be the kind of person who hurts another human being, so it’s a daily struggle to stay mentally correct with my decision; it’s not easy,” he says.
Yet he is adamant that this is what is safest for his family. He also called Health Canada and tried to find out if it was possible to get involved in the Novavax clinical trial to speed up the authorization process in the country.
He’ll roll up his sleeve as soon as it’s available.
“I’m not willing to do what everyone else is doing, and I feel like I have a right to make that decision.”