Health Canada approved its first coronavirus antiviral medication Monday, adding a "new tool in the toolkit against COVID-19," said Canada's chief medical advisor.
Dr. Supriya Sharma said the development comes "at a crucial time...as we are facing new (virus) variants."
The new medication, Paxlovid, has some key advantages. It is taken orally and can be administered at home. It is designed to aid the body in both reducing the detrimental effects of the coronavirus and shortening the duration of the illness. That could cut down on infected people being admitted to hospitals that are already under severe strain with burgeoning caseloads.
But there are some caveats, too. It is approved only for those over the age of 18 and must be prescribed by a doctor. It can be administered to treat mild/moderate cases of COVID-19, but it cannot prevent coronavirus infections or be given to those that have been hospitalized with the virus.
Paxlovid underwent months of clinical trials and lowered the chances of hospitalization or fatality by 89% compared to a placebo administered to those considered high risk who were infected with the virus. The trials also showed the product will likely be effective against the omicron variant.
While praising the new medication, Sharma said "no drug, including Paxlovid, is a substitute for vaccination" to cut the risk of being admitted to hospital.
Still, the antiviral was labeled as "good news" by Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, at a press conference Monday.
"The regulator, as well as the experts helping us with the guidance and the supply, are all coming together at once and I think Canadians should be very happy today to hear that oral antivirals are beginning to become available in Canada," Tam said.
Paxlovid is not yet available but will be "as soon as possible," she said.
Because the medication is expected to be in high demand, Canada's provinces have been asked in the beginning to target a certain segment of the population: those with a high risk of severe illness, those over 80 who have not been vaccinated, and those over 60 who live in rural, remote areas, nursing homes, or are Indigenous, or who do not have up-to-date vaccinations.
“This approach shows that we are prioritizing treatments to those most in need,” Tam said./aa