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Canada to manufacture Merck COVID-19 antivirals if regulator approves


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OTTAWA — Canada could become a global manufacturing hub for a potentially game-changing treatment of COVID-19 with the signing of a new agreement to produce Merck Canada’s antiviral drug in Whitby, Ont.

The company inked a deal with Thermo Fisher Scientific to manufacture the drug, molnupiravir, at its facility in Whitby with a mandate to supply the product domestically, as well as to the United Kingdom, European Union, Asia Pacific and Latin America.

The drug — one of the first treatments for non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients — is currently pending Health Canada approval.

The facility has already churned out 10 million courses of the drug while the company waits for the green light.

Last week Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi announced Canada had signed a deal to purchase 500,000 courses of the oral antiviral drug, with the option to purchase another 500,000 if Health Canada gives the all-clear.

“The inventory is there, it’s ready to be shipped once we have approval, but we will continue to manufacture for future supplies.” said Marwan Akar, president of Merck Canada, at a news conference Monday.

The antiviral works by blocking the enzyme essential for viral replication.

Merck’s clinical trial showed a 50 per cent reduced risk of hospitalization or death compared to placebo patients with mild or moderate COVID-19.

Some experts have heralded the development of the drug as a potential turning point in the pandemic. Currently, antiviral medication must be administered intravenously by a health-care professional in a hospital.

The oral medication could be prescribed and taken at home, allowing patients to be treated before they are so sick they need hospital care and potentially alleviating pressure on hospitals.

The announcement is also a step forward in Canada’s efforts to boost domestic biomanufacturing to respond to COVID-19 and future pandemics.

“To me, this is a very big step in how we intend to rebuild our biomanufacturing sector in Canada,” said Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne at the news conference.

Canada’s capacity to produce pharmaceuticals has been in decline since the 1980s, leaving the country unable to create its own supply of much-needed COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Canada’s dependency on foreign supply meant the vaccine rollout was stalled due to overseas shipment delays.

Since then, Canada released a biomanufacturing life sciences strategy to try to rebuild its long lost capabilities.

“We didn’t choose the timing of this pandemic. We won’t choose when the next one happens. But we can choose and we are choosing as Canadians to be ready for whatever may come next,” Champagne said.

Merck Canada has invested $19 million to scale up production of its antiviral drug at Thermo Fisher Scientific’s facility, Champagne said, signalling companies are prepared to invest in Canadian drug production.

Merck Canada chose the Canadian plant because of its capacity, capability and speed, Akar said, “and to be honest with you, the trust that we had that the facility in Whitby will deliver as we need it, because we are dealing with a pandemic.”

So far there are 50 employees dedicated to production of molnupiravir in the Thermo Fisher Scientific facility, though officials expect more jobs will be created as health authorities around the world approve the use of the drug.

“Obviously the number of jobs will be directly related to the demand for the drugs around the world,” Champagne said. “But the fact that we have a global mandate is the foundational starting point for us to be able to have more people involved in the production (and) research of that particular drug.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2021.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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Opposition leader to meet with freedom convoy leaders in Ottawa

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With a healthy Prime Minister Trudeau isolating due to covid protocol, Canada’s Opposition leader Erin O’Toole says he’s only too happy to meet with representatives of the Freedom Convoy.  Thursday as O’Toole emerged from a caucus meeting about the results of the last election, he swept aside all questions from the media and made a statement about the Freedom Convoy headed to the nation’s capital.

Saying he’s never seen the county so divided, O’Toole blamed the Prime Minister for stoking the division by refusing to even speak to the Truckers.  He went on to say the Conservatives have always opposed mandates, and that no Canadian should be losing their livelihood over their health decisions.

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Crowd gathers north of Toronto to cheer on trucker convoy heading to Ottawa

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TORONTO — A large crowd gathered outside a mall north of Toronto on Thursday as a group of local truckers prepared to join a convoy to Ottawa in protest of the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border drivers.

Some in the crowd threw cash and food up to truckers in their vehicles at the Vaughan Mills mall while others hoisted Canadian flags and signs protesting the government as the truckers gradually rolled out.

Mike Fabinski, a truck driver from Barrie, Ont., said the vaccine mandate means he won’t be able to work cross-border routes any more.

“You want to be vaccinated, go ahead, your choice. I don’t want to be vaccinated, that’s my choice,” he said.

Fabinski said he’s been a truck driver for 20 years but has not been able to travel to the U.S. since the federal mandate came to effect on Jan 15.

“I was going non-stop until they started last Saturday,” he said. “Now I cannot go. I cannot work no more.”

The federal government ended truckers’ exemption to the vaccine mandate two weeks ago meaning Canadian truck drivers need to be fully vaccinated if they want to avoid a two-week quarantine when they cross into Canada from the U.S.

Some with extreme, far-right views have latched onto the protest against the mandate. One online video includes a man expressing hope the rally will turn into the Canadian equivalent of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump.

On Thursday, some in the crowd that came out to support the truckers said they planned to join the convoy and make the trek to Ottawa as well.

Dean Brown said he supported peaceful protest intended by the convoy and rejected suggestions that it could lead to violence.

“The people who are in charge of this (convoy) are blocking people who are insisting or suggesting violence,” the 57-year-old Toronto man said.

“It’s all about peace. It’s all about freedom. It’s all about getting the Canadian way of life back. We are not here to turn it to violence.”

Ontario Provincial Police were urging drivers to be patient as several groups of truckers planned to drive across the province to Ottawa before a so-called “freedom rally” on Parliament Hill planned for Saturday.

Police spokesman Sgt. Kerry Schmidt said drivers should prepare for delays on Toronto-area highways, including Highway 401, Highway 400 and the Queen Elizabeth Way.

Police in Ottawa have said they are planning for as many as 2,000 demonstrators, and while protest leaders have been co-operative, there are concerns that far-right extremist groups that have attached themselves to the convoy could spark violence.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which has denounced the convoy protest, estimates that roughly 15 per cent of truckers — up to 16,000 — are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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