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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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COVID-19

Jail ‘Freedom Convoy’ organizer Tamara Lich again, Crown argues in Ottawa court

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By Laura Osman in Ottawa

The Crown is accusing “Freedom Convoy” organizer Tamara Lich of breaching her bail conditions and prosecutors argue she should go back to jail until her trial.

A judge initially denied Lich bail after her arrest during the massive protest that overtook downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks in February, but she was released in March after a review of the court decision.

She appeared virtually on Thursday in Ontario Superior Court, where lawyers wrangled over how the bail hearing should proceed.

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

She was released 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 Crown says Lich has violated one of her bail conditions by agreeing to accept a “freedom award” from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a legal advocacy group that supported the protest.

The organization planned to honour her at a gala celebration for inspiring “Canadians to exercise their Charter rights and freedoms by participating actively in the democratic process,” and leading the “Freedom Convoy” protest in Ottawa.

That protest evolved into a weeks-long demonstration that gridlocked the streets of Ottawa and eventually led the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act in an effort to dislodge the participants.

“Ms. Lich has suffered for the cause of freedom by spending 18 days unjustly jailed, and exemplifies courage, determination and perseverance,” the organization wrote in a statement on its website, which the Crown included in its notice of application.

The website said Lich would attend the award dinner in Toronto on June 16, if a review of her bail conditions would allow her to attend, as well as events in Vancouver and Calgary.

The Toronto event is expected to include a keynote address by columnist Rex Murphy.

During the protest, Keith Wilson, a Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms lawyer, spoke on behalf of the convoy protesters at a news conference and described Lich as a client.

“Tamara Lich ought to be detained,” the Crown’s notice of application concludes.

Meanwhile, Lich’s lawyers plan to argue that her bail conditions are too restrictive and should be reconsidered.

Her lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, told the court Thursday 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.

He said she wishes to be in contact with her 94-year-old grandmother by social media and communicate with her friends and family.

The hearing is expected to last two days.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.

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COVID-19

Ottawa interim police chief Steve Bell didn’t ask feds to invoke Emergencies Act

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Ottawa’s interim police chief says he did not ask the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act during the “Freedom Convoy” in February.

The Liberals have said law enforcement asked for additional powers that could only be granted by declaring a national emergency.

Last week, however, Commissioner Brenda Lucki also said the RCMP did not ask the federal government to use the act.

Ottawa interim chief Steve Bell spoke to a parliamentary committee today, along with representatives from the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP and Gatineau police, about issues with jurisdiction in downtown Ottawa.

The committee on Procedure and House Affairs is examining whether the Parliamentary Protective Service should have jurisdiction over Wellington and Sparks streets, in addition to its current oversight of the parliamentary precinct.

Bell says there will need to be clarity on the boundaries of each organization’s responsibility if any changes are made, and clarity about what happens when events such as protests cross over those boundaries.

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

The Canadian Press

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