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Alberta rolling out new COVID-19 treatment in phases; Hinshaw warns it’s no substitute for vaccines

Click to play video: 'Alberta begins use of monoclonal antibody treatment to prevent severe outcomes of COVID-19' Alberta begins use of monoclonal antibody treatment to prevent severe outcomes of COVID-19
WATCH ABOVE: Dr. Deena Hinshaw announces Alberta will begin the use of sotrovimab, the first outpatient treatment for COVID-19. – Nov 9, 2021

Alberta is starting to administer a new treatment for some COVID-19 patients, but the new tool in the fight against the coronavirus is no substitute for getting a vaccine, the province’s chief medical officer of health said Tuesday.

“Sotrovimab is a new drug that was developed specifically for treating patients with COVID-19 who have mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw told reporters at a news conference in which she provided an update on the province’s pandemic response.

“It is the first treatment to be offered to outpatients in Alberta. For maximum effectiveness, it must be administered within five days from when the symptoms begin.

“But let me stress that sotrovimab is not a replacement for COVID-19 vaccines. Albertans are still strongly encouraged to be vaccinated against the virus as vaccines are the most effective method to prevent the serious outcomes from the disease.

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“While this medication is helpful, it does not change the fact that vaccines continue to be our most important tool to protect both ourselves and others.”

READ MORE: Regeneron’s antibody COVID-19 treatment is popular in the U.S. – why not in Canada?

Alberta Health Services’ website also emphasizes that sotrovimab is “not a replacement for COVID-19 vaccination.”

In a statement issued to Global News, AHS said the treatment is currently only being offered to people who are 65 or older and who have not received any doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. It is also being offered to people who have received a solid organ transplant or stem cell transplant, “regardless of vaccination status.”

The monoclonal antibody treatment was approved by Health Canada in late July. AHS’ website notes that “Health Canada has authorized the sale of this drug based on limited clinical testing in humans and/or quality information.”

“Sotrovimab is reported to have the potential to prevent one hospital admission for every 20 patients who receive treatment,” the health authority says.

“The treatment is being rolled out across the province in a phased approach, starting with those at the highest risk of severe outcomes like hospitalization,” Hinshaw said.

She noted that AHS’ EMS mobile integrated health teams have started administering sotrovimab to some eligible patients in their homes. People receiving the treatment in their homes will have it administered through an IV infusion.

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Hinshaw noted in Fort McMurray and surrounding areas, people who are eligible for the treatment and who request it will receive it at an AHS clinic.

READ MORE: Number of Albertans in ICUs with COVID-19 continues to drop Tuesday 

At her news conference on Tuesday, Hinshaw said that while the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital ICUs is declining along with the total number of active coronavirus cases in the province, the the health-care system continues to be significantly strained by the number of people requiring hospital treatment because of the virus.

Dr. Cheri Nijssen-Jordan, an AHS vaccine task force chair, suggested it is encouraging that there is “some preliminary data that it (sotrovimab) can certainly help out with preventing hospitalizations if you use it in the right patient population — those that are mild to moderate with early onset or early symptoms — and we do think that will make a significant difference in our ability to keep those patients out of hospital.”.

Nijssen-Jordan also said that the benefits of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 “far outweigh” the new treatment option. She also noted that the therapy has “not been proven to be of any great benefit for those that are vaccinated” except in the cases of people who have recently had transplants or those who are immune-compromised and for whom the vaccine may bring on complications.

She said each province was given a limited supply of sotrovimab which is why there is eligibility criteria that needs to be met to receive the treatment. However, she noted the age groups of people eligible for the therapy may be expanded in the next few weeks depending on uptake in the meantime.

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Health experts weigh in on use of sotrovimab

Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary, told Global News that while sotrovimab is an important tool, “this does not replace vaccination.”

“We’ve heard people sort of use this as justification that now if they get sick, there’s something that can be done so there’s less need to be vaccinated,” he told Global News. “But this really does not fill that gap.”

He noted the treatment may very useful in the rare instances someone cannot be vaccinated but noted for those who can be vaccinated, the process is a quick jab from a needle as opposed to the hour or more needed for sotrovimab, which he said is a rather invasive treatment by comparison.

Click to play video: 'Health experts say new COVID-19 treatment being offered in Alberta is not a substitute for the vaccine' Health experts say new COVID-19 treatment being offered in Alberta is not a substitute for the vaccine
Health experts say new COVID-19 treatment being offered in Alberta is not a substitute for the vaccine – Nov 10, 2021

Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said the fact a new therapy is available in the province is “good news.”

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“It’s exciting that we have a therapy that appears to be effective — somewhat effective… and we’ve seen it being used in other jurisdictions,” he told Global News. “So that’s exciting. Everyone I work with, everyone in the public health sphere wants effective therapies for COVID.”

However, like other health experts, Caulfield worries how news of the new therapy’s use might be perceived by some.

“One of the things I’m frustrated with is the disconnect between the idea that we have an effective therapy, so somehow that means we don’t need to vaccinate, and that’s just completely wrong,” he said. “It’s incredibly frustrating to me that you have this anti-vax community… (that is) often willing to take unproven therapies — ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine or experimental drugs that are potentially efficacious — but they won’t take an effective vaccine, and that really, for me, highlights the degree to which so much of the anti-vax community is really about ideology.

“Because it makes no conceptual sense that you’ll reject a highly-regulated, proven to be effective, proven to be safe vaccine but accept an unproven pharmaceutical. It makes no conceptual sense but that’s where we are today.”

Caulfield said he believes more treatments will be approved in the future to treat COVID-19 and that will be a positive development.

“(But) we don’t want this drug and the existence of this drug to take away from the necessity of vaccines,” he said.

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Jenne said it remains to be seen how effective sotrovimab may continue to be if the novel coronavirus continues to mutate.

“Right now, this treatment is working fairly well against the variants we have, but because this is a monoclonal antibody, this is something that only targets one tiny piece of the virus as opposed to your immune system which can build many different types of antibodies… It provides a little bit of insurance if the virus mutates that one tiny piece.

“Drugs such as this monoclonal antibody therapy, although they are effective now, we’re not sure how they’ll hold up against new variants as they emerge.”

–With files from Sarah Komadina, Global News

Watch below: Some recent videos about the COVID-19 situation in Alberta.

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