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Coronavirus: University of Alberta-based non-profit ramping up production of ventilator drugs

Health Matters: April 14
WATCH ABOVE: (April 14) Su-Ling Goh tells us how a non-profit organization is helping to ensure a safe supply of drugs for Albertans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A non-profit pharmaceutical organization that’s based out of the University of Alberta is ramping up its efforts to produce ventilator drugs in anticipation of possible shortages.

Applied Pharmaceutical Innovation normally works with researchers to move viable drug ideas into the clinical trial phase, but as the COVID-19 situation has worsened, the organization is switching gears to produce drugs that it believes will soon be in short supply.

“A lot of the respirator therapies that are needed for patients that are in intensive care units require that they be on certain drugs through an IV drip in order for them to be on the ventilator,” Andrew MacIsaac, the CEO of Applied Pharmaceutical Innovation, said.

“So while a lot of public attention has been paid to the need for ventilators, one of the big gaps that will appear as we start to have a lot of patients on these ventilators is they’ll be using drugs that are normally in fairly short supply.”

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READ MORE: Alberta testing anti-malaria drug as early COVID-19 treatment; U of A studying Ebola drug

The drugs the company is focusing on are propofol, a sedative, as well as cisatracurium, a muscle relaxant. It is also monitoring Canada’s drug shortage list. 

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MacIsaac said the main concern is due to COVID-19 hitting other countries hard right now, which could tap out the global supply of ventilator drugs before they’re needed in Alberta.

“What we’re working to do is build local supply chains so we can provide these drugs directly to AHS and other health systems within Canada, in the event of a drug shortage,” MacIssac said.

“Because this will come up on us fairly quickly.”

READ MORE: What is a ventilator, and why do some coronavirus patients need one?

According to Alberta Health Services, it is working with the Health Canada Drug Shortages Unit to identify critical medications that will be required in increased quantities to care for ventilated COVID-19 patients in the ICUs.

“At this point in time, there is sufficient supply in Alberta to meet current patient demand but we anticipate significant increases in demand as we admit more COVID-19 patients into hospital and our ICUs,” said a statement from Kerry Williamson with AHS.

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He added that AHS and Health Canada are also working to identify alternative sources of supply.

MacIsaac said his company has been in direct contact with AHS through the process.

“Having the capacity at our fingertips within the province to address some of these shortages as a stop-gap measure is definitely something that’s of interest to Albertans,” he said.

READ MORE: Finding value in daily COVID-19 numbers despite provincial testing differences

API is funded by a combination of in-kind support from the U of A, as well as some funding from industry projects.

For the COVID-19 drug development, MacIsaac said API has put forward several proposals for funding to the provincial Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism.

“We still will be able to get drugs through but at a reduced scale [without funding],” MacIsaac said. “We’ll be able to do small amounts and fill small gaps, with the path we have in place right now.”
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API is also collecting funding to support the rapid development of vaccine production.