Why Health Canada Shouldn’t Miss Out on COVID-19 Medication

Opinion by Anna Robinson.

An orange bottle of pills is spilled out onto a blue background.

During the pandemic, a key question has been how to mitigate a virus that seems to change every few months. Vaccines are proven to be very effective, however there are still gaps to fill. Breakthrough cases and variants of concern provide new challenges for vaccines and continue to put pressure on our healthcare systems. However, recent developments in COVID-19 treatment offer chances to relive these difficulties. Several companies such as Pfizer and Merck Laboratories have crafted COVID-19 pills that could aid those who are infected.


How can the pills help those who are infected? Each of the medications currently being reviewed have the same goal: reduce the severity of health consequences for those who contract the virus [3]. They work to prevent the virus from being able to effectively replicate itself, minimizing the risk for complications. During Pfizer’s trial of their pill Paxlovid, they reported an 89% reduction in risk and significantly lower rates of hospitalization and death [1]. Merck reported that their pill decreased hospitalization and death by half in patients with mild to moderate symptoms [3].


The pills were reported to be most effective when taken 2-3 days after symptoms appear. Therefore, they would not be an alternative to vaccines but could be an additional measure to curb the devastating effects of COVID-19 [3]. The pills, which could be prescribed and picked up at pharmacies, could minimize breakthrough cases and high-risk populations. In the UK, the use of Merck’s pill for high-risk individuals (such as seniors or immuno-compromised people) has already been approved [4].


In the United States, Merck’s pill was given approval on November 30 and Pfizer has recently submitted data to begin their review process. Pfizer has also inked a deal with several developing countries to allow them to manufacture and distribute Paxlovid in their country [5]. Many other countries around the world have created their own deals with manufacturers to secure their supplies. However, among this list of countries, Canada remains absent.


Health Canada stated several weeks ago that they were in the process of reviewing necessary data on Merck’s pill but have had no news since [7]. So far, their approach towards the COVID-19 medications has been muddled, echoing the slow fumbling of early vaccine rollout in 2021. There’s been no decisive action to approve, distribute, manufacture or gain supply of any medication for COVID-19. This hesitancy can be detrimental for Canadians and our health system in the months to come.


Falling behind in the race can deprive Canadians of access to medications that could easily reinvent our approach to COVID-19 as a whole. By having a multi-layered system of protection that targets both prevention and mitigation, we will be much more capable of keeping our people safe.


With a new variant of concern and an uptick in cases, the situation is rapidly changing. Hospitals are very strained and lack the capability to handle any more surges in critical care cases [6]. By introducing COVID-19 medications, it could reduce hospitalization and stress on our health systems. While our current case count is potentially plateauing and our vaccination rates are strong, we should aim to be proactive. An action today can guarantee someone’s tomorrow.

 

Bibliography

[1] Hicock, Kimberly, “How Covid antiviral pills work and what that could mean for the pandemic”, NBC, November 12, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/covid-antiviral-drugs-merck-pfizer-pills-work-rcna5317.

[2] Jones, Alexandra Mae, “Pfizer submits data on antiviral COVID-19 pill to Health Canada for review”, CTV News, December 1, 2021. https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/pfizer-submits-data-on-antiviral-covid-19-pill-to-health-canada-for-review-1.5689493


[3] Katella, Kathy, “9 Things You Need To Know About the New COVID-19 Pill”, Yale Medicine, December 1, 2021. https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/9-things-to-know-about-covid-pill


[4] Perrone, Matthew, Cheng, Maria, “UK Becomes First Country To Authorize Merck Antiviral Pill To Treat COVID”, Huffington Post, November 04, 2021. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bc-eu-med-virus-outbreak-britain-merck-pill_n_6183c0cce4b06de3eb710d74


[5] Radio Canada, “Pfizer signs deal to let generic drug companies make its COVID-19 antiviral pill”, November 16, 2021. https://ici.radio-canada.ca/rci/en/news/1840239/pfizer-signs-deal-to-let-generic-drug-companies-make-its-covid-19-antiviral-pill


[6] Ogilive, Megan, “Ontario hospitals lack capacity for surges of critically ill patients, report says”, Toronto Star, November 30, 2021. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2021/11/30/ontario-hospitals-lack-capacity-for-surges-of-critically-ill-patients-report-says.html


[7] Zuber, Melissa Couto, “COVID-19 antiviral pill approved in U.K. still being reviewed by Health Canada”, Global News, November 4, 2021. https://globalnews.ca/news/8350955/merck-antiviral-pill-health-canada/