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COVID-19

Health Canada approves Pfizer antiviral but supply issues expected

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OTTAWA — Health Canada approved Pfizer’s antiviral treatment for COVID-19 Monday which could help cut pressure on the health-care system by preventing high-risk patients from ending up in the hospital.

But limited supplies of Paxlovid mean the Public Health Agency of Canada is asking provinces and territories to prioritize the treatment for people most at risk of serious illness, including severely immune-compromised patients and some unvaccinated people over the age of 60.

“Canadians should be very happy today to hear that the oral antivirals are beginning to become available in Canada,” chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said at a virtual briefing Monday.

Health Canada’s authorization means Paxlovid can be prescribed for adults who test positive for COVID-19 on a molecular or a rapid test, who have mild or moderate symptoms and are at high risk of becoming severely ill.

Clinical trials showed the treatment, which helps prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from reproducing in an infected patient, was almost 90 per cent effective at reducing hospitalization and death in high-risk patients if given within three days of infection, and 85 per cent if given within five days.

The medication requires three pills at a time, twice a day, for five days. It is the first oral COVID-19 treatment that can be taken at home to be approved in Canada but Tam admitted there may be some logistical challenges getting the drug to the right people quickly enough.

“It is challenging, there is no doubt it,” Tam said. “First of all, spotting that you may have symptoms and then getting medical attention quickly.”

McMaster University infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla said supply constraints mean the impact of Paxlovid may be slow, but overall, it should start to help reduce the number of people who are becoming severely ill.

“There is certainly a lot of hope here,” he said.

Canada has a contract to get one million courses of the treatment this year but supply issues are limiting use everywhere it has been approved so far.

Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi said more than 30,000 courses of the treatment are already in Canada and will be distributed to provinces on a per-capita basis this week.

She said another 120,000 courses of the treatment will be shipped before the end of March. She did not say when the remainder of the one million doses Canada bought will come, nor would she disclose the cost, citing contract confidentiality.

Neither would Pfizer Canada, though Pfizer said in the fall the United States is paying about US$530 per treatment course.

Chagla said it’s difficult to know how many courses would be enough, but he said every one helps, particularly if there are enough available for immune-compromised people for whom vaccines don’t work very well.

Tam said because of supply constraints the Public Health Agency of Canada is asking provincial and territorial governments to prioritize the highest-risk patients for the medications.

Severely immune-compromised patients, such as transplant recipients, top the priority list. They are followed by unvaccinated people over the age of 80, and then unvaccinated people over 60 who live in long-term care, remote or rural locations or First Nations.

Tam said prioritizing unvaccinated people is scientific and rational because they are at higher risk of severe outcomes.

“I think that as health-care providers, you don’t pick and choose which patients you have coming into the hospital getting treated,” she said.

Chagla said keeping unvaccinated patients out of hospital is a big help to everyone from a health-care resources perspective, and noted for most patients, being vaccinated means they aren’t at high risk for serious illness.

“Getting two or three doses of vaccine probably are like having Paxlovid in your system all the time (in terms of) preventing people from getting seriously ill,” he said.

The United States Food and Drug Administration authorized Paxlovid for patients as young as 12 years old but Health Canada said the company did not submit any safety or efficacy data for that age group so it can’t be authorized for people younger than 18 at this time.

Health Canada also says the treatment isn’t to be used on patients already in hospital with severe or critical COVID-19 or as a prevention treatment before or after someone is exposed to the virus. It is also not to be given to a patient for more than five days.

It warns there are some potentially severe drug interactions between Paxlovid and other medications prescribed for ailments including prostate cancer and heart problems and narcotics including fentanyl.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2022.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said two tablets were taken twice a day for five days.

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Alberta

Judge denies bail for protester charged in southern Alberta border blockade

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LETHBRIDGE, Alta. — A judge has denied bail for a man charged with conspiracy to commit murder at a border blockade in southern Alberta.

Chris Carbert, who is 45, appeared by video in Court of Queen’s Bench in Lethbridge on Friday to hear the decision after a bail hearing last week.

Reasons for Justice Johnna Kubik’s ruling are protected by a publication ban.

Carbert and three other men are accused of conspiring to kill police officers at a blockade near Coutts, Alta., in protest of COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions.

One of the men, Christopher Lysak, was denied bail in March.

Anthony Olienick, whose bail hearing began this morning, and Jerry Morin also remain in custody.

The Crown has already indicated it plans to try the four men together.

They are to return to court on June 13.

The protest near Coutts began in late January and lasted for almost three weeks.

Fourteen people were charged in February after RCMP found a cache of long guns, handguns, body armour, large amounts of ammunition and high-capacity magazines in three trailers.

Police allege a group at the protest was willing to use force if the blockade was disrupted. Officers described the threat as “very serious.”

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

The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Judge decides ‘Freedom Convoy’ organizer Tamara Lich stays out on bail

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OTTAWA — Tamara Lich, a key organizer of the “Freedom Convoy” protest that gridlocked Ottawa for weeks, will remain released on bail while awaiting trial, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Kevin Phillips said he made his decision because she has followed her bail conditions, her surety has supervised her well and she’s already had a “taste of jail,” which he said lowered her risk to reoffend.

The judge said he does not accept that Lich breached her release conditions by agreeing to receive an award, and added Lich can be trusted to respect the conditions of her release.

She was released in March with a long list of conditions, including a ban from all social media and an order not to “support anything related to the Freedom Convoy.”

The terms of Lich’s release were intended to prevent a similar protest from happening in the national capital, the judge said, adding the court does not seek to control people’s political views.

“The courts are not a thought police. We seek only to control conduct to the extent that certain behaviour will violate or likely lead to violation of the law,” he said.

The protest is over and has left Ottawa, he said, adding it would be “practically impossible” to mount a similar protest in the city again.

Lich’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said in an interview Wednesday that he was pleased with the decision.

“She’ll be able to conduct her life in a lot more normal fashion as a result of the judge’s ruling,” said Greenspon.

Moiz Karimjee, a Crown prosecutor, said last week that Lich violated one of her bail conditions by agreeing to accept an award for her leadership during the Ottawa protest, and should be sent back behind bars to wait for her trial.

Greenspon argued last week her bail conditions should be loosened to allow her to come to Ontario and use social media.

He told the court that the social media ban imposed on Lich was unnecessarily broad and has had a huge impact on her life while she’s been out of custody.

However, Phillips said Wednesday the ban on Lich’s access to social media is warranted.

“Social media can be a problematic feedback loop where people get egged on and caught up in group activity they would never perform on their own,” he said.

Social media “undoubtedly contributed to and even drove” Lich’s conduct related to the protest, and her separation from it is necessary to lower her risk of reoffending, said Phillips.

Noting that Lich is in her late 40s, Phillips said she should be able to remember “how to use the social skills she surely built up before the advent of the internet.”

Lich is able to communicate by many other means, including email, phone or meeting in person, he said.

Greenspon said while he would have liked to see the social media ban reversed, “the most important thing was the rejection of the Crown’s efforts to to put her back in jail for agreeing to accept an award.”

The judge did amend her release conditions to allow her to visit Ottawa.

Lich’s motivation for coming to the city cannot be disclosed because it is under a court-ordered publication ban.

Phillips reiterated the high unlikelihood that Lich could organize an event resembling the convoy protest.

While she’s permitted to come to Ottawa, Lich is not allowed to visit the downtown core so as not “to walk around the very neighbourhoods she is alleged to have traumatized,” he said, except to attend court or meet with legal counsel.

Lich and fellow protest organizer Chris Barber are jointly accused of mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation.

The “Freedom Convoy” protest evolved into a weeks-long demonstration that congested the streets of Ottawa in February.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

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