There’s hope that Health Canada’s approval of Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 treatment will help ease the strain on the country’s health-care system, as hospitalizations continue their steady climb.
The pill uses a combination of two antiviral drugs to prevent the virus that causes COVID-19 from replicating once it has infected a patient, but health officials stress it is not a replacement for vaccinations.
“Getting vaccinated is still the best prevention in terms of COVID illness, especially severe illness, hospitalization, or death,” said Dr. Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser with Health Canada.
“But really, there are some groups that potentially don’t have that immune response either because they’re unvaccinated, under vaccinated or they have an immune problem or they have other risk factors. So this is really one medication in that area to try to prevent hospitalization and death.”
Clinical trials showed treatment with Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization and death caused by COVID-19 by 89 per cent when the medications were started within three days of the beginning of symptoms, and by 85 per cent when started within five days.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief medical officer, noted supply of Paxlovid will be an early issue, meaning the treatment is unlikely to have much of an impact on the current Omicron wave.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Canada has already received its first shipment of 30,000 treatment courses of the Pfizer drug, with another 120,000 expected through March.
Distribution to provinces and territories will begin immediately, with priority given to patients who are moderately to severely immunocompromised and don’t mount enough protection against COVID-19 with vaccines.
That includes people over the age of 80 whose vaccines are not up to date, and those 60 years and older living in rural or underserved communities including First Nation, Inuit and Metis people whose vaccinations are not up to date.