Health Canada has officially approved Moderna’s updated COVID-19 vaccine targeting the Omicron variant.
The vaccine, which is approved for use in adults 18 years and older, will become the first COVID-19 vaccine available in Canada that targets 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 “significantly higher responses” to the Omicron BA.1 virus than Moderna’s original coronavirus vaccine, officially called Spikevax.
Although the updated vaccine was developed to target the Omicron BA.1 variant, Health Canada says clinical trials show the new vaccine still elicits a “stronger immune response” against the newer Omicron — BA mutations. 4 and BA.5 — which are now dominant.
“The results of exploratory analyzes suggest that a second booster with Spikevax Bivalent will provide a superior neutralizing antibody response to BA.4/5 compared to a second booster with Spikevax Original,” part of the ruling reads.
Health Canada also reported that “no new safety concerns were identified in studies compared with the currently approved Spikevax mRNA vaccine.”
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that the updated vaccine be offered to adults who are recommended to receive a fall booster dose.
NACI says the vaccine can be offered to adolescents between 12 and 17 years of age with “moderately to severely immunocompromised conditions” and those who have increased social risk factors.
WATCH: Health Canada’s Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Supriya Sharma says updated vaccine will be effective against Omicron
The updated vaccine is a combination of two strains, also known as “bivalent” shots. Contains both the original vaccine formulation and protection against the original Omicron BA.1 variant.
Moderna’s new injection will come in 50-microgram doses. Half of its content targets the original strain of coronavirus, while the other half targets Omicron.
An initial shipment of 780,000 doses of the updated vaccine should 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 control the administration of the vaccines should begin next week.
Duclos urged Canadians to sign up for booster shots quickly as summer draws to a close.
“This fall is going to be challenging with the return of the flu and other respiratory illnesses and people moving indoors,” Duclos said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Vaccines for newer Omicron strains may become available
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 approval by Health Canada.
Njoo said that in choosing to approve Moderna’s BA.1-focused vaccine, the government considered the tools it has now “against what could potentially happen in the future.”
“Ultimately, we are very happy with the fact that we have a good bivalent vaccine,” Njoo added.
The US Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday its 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 a submission from Pfizer as soon as next week for a bivalent vaccine targeting BA.4 and BA.5.
A new introduction 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.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Organization, said the approval of the vaccine is an important development in Canada’s fight against COVID-19 — even though the vaccine was developed for a strain that is no longer widely circulating.
“I really 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 Canadians should not wait for the perfect and most up-to-date vaccine as they will likely need re-immunizations against COVID-19 in the future.
“This defense will not last. This will not be the last vaccine you receive. So be prepared, until we have better vaccines, to get vaccinated probably every six months,” said Dawn Bowdish, an immunologist at McMaster University.