Health Canada gave its approval on Monday, making Paxlovid the country’s first oral COVID-19 treatment that can be taken at home.
Paxlovid can be given to adults 18 and older who are positive for COVID-19 and are experiencing mild or moderate illness, and who are at high risk of becoming more seriously ill, Health Canada said.
The treatment, which has to be prescribed, involves taking three pills of two different drugs, twice a day, for five days. It should be started after a positive COVID-19 test and within five days from the onset of symptoms.
“COVID-19 treatments, along with vaccinations and public health measures, are essential to save lives, reduce illness and lessen the burden on our health-care facilities,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.
“Today’s announcement is particularly important as access to easy-to-use treatments could help to reduce the severity of COVID-19 in adults who become newly infected and are at high risk of progressing to serious illness.”
Last month, the federal government announced it signed a purchase agreement with Pfizer to buy up to one million courses of its treatment, pending regulatory approval. Canada has an option to procure an additional 500,000 courses of the treatment, said Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi.
A Pfizer spokesperson told Global News the company is ready to start delivery in Canada immediately. Some supply is already in the country and will be distributed this week, however, it is limited at this time.
So far, Canada has received 30,400 treatment courses of Paxlovid, with 120,000 more expected to be delivered between January and March.
Tam said federal officials are working to firm up a delivery schedule. She said provinces and territories will manage distribution.
Until more Paxlovid pills make it into Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada has offered suggestions about how to best use or triage the current supply.
It currently recommends prioritizing severely immune-compromised patients, people over 80 who don’t have all their vaccines, and people over 60 living in remote and rural locations, long-term care homes and First Nations.
“This first treatment that is taken orally and can be taken at home will be in high demand,” Tam said.
“There are mechanisms being set up right now to make sure that individuals in these high-risk groups, for example, clinicians looking after those who are moderately or severely immunocompromised, are getting themselves ready to respond to the needs of that group and those in long-term care and other places as well.”
Pfizer began a rolling submission with Health Canada in December for Paxlovid, which is designed to block a key enzyme needed for the COVID-19 virus to multiply.
The full results of Pfizer’s 2,250-person study found the drug reduced combined hospitalizations and deaths by about 89 per cent among high-risk adults when taken shortly after initial COVID-19 symptoms.
Pfizer added on Dec. 14 its COVID-19 pill appeared to be effective against the Omicron variant.
The treatment has also been approved for use in the United States by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, told Global News Paxlovid can help reduce COVID-19 hospitalizations.
“It really is aimed at those who are not being hospitalized but have a significant risk of being hospitalized because of certain issues in themselves or in their disease,” he said.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, agrees.
“Obviously, we’re going to have a limited supply upfront because there’s limited global supply, but I think we can really prioritize those who are at greatest risk with this medication, and it will do a lot of good,” he said.
Antiviral COVID-19 treatments in Canada
Before Monday’s announcement, Ottawa had approved four COVID-19 treatments. Unlike Pfizer’s pill, all of them have to be given intravenously.
In November, Pfizer announced it signed a deal with a U.N.-backed group to allow other manufacturers to make its COVID-19 pill, potentially making it available to more than half the global population.
Last month, Merck announced it would be partnering with a pharmaceutical company in Ontario to make its antiviral pill in Canada.
Merck’s Molnupiravir has shown to be effective at reducing hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk individuals by around 30 per cent.
Canada also has an agreement with Merck to buy up to 500,000 courses of Molnupiravir, with an option to add 500,000 more pending approval. It is still under Health Canada review.
Cardiologist and epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Labos previously told Global News that antiviral pills could potentially limit COVID-19’s impact on Canada’s health-care system, but they don’t “prevent the problem.”
“It just treats the problem,” he said.
“In terms of preventing outbreaks, vaccines are clearly the better course of action.”
— with files from Eric Stober