Ottawa and a major pharmaceutical company are hoping for a prescription for a promising new treatment for COVID-19.
Pharmaceutical giant Merck joined the federal and provincial governments on Monday in announcing not only the treatment, but that Canada will be one of three international sites where it will be manufactured.
If the necessary regulators approve it, the center will be set up for $ 19 million in Whitby, Ont., About 55 km east of Toronto, and will create 50 local jobs.
Molnupiravir is a medicine in pill form. It is in clinical trials and has not been approved for general use by Health Canada, but early studies are showing promise. A report found that, taken a few days after the first symptoms of COVID appear, it could reduce hospitalizations and deaths by about 30% in mild to moderate cases.
Federal Minister of Science and Innovation François-Philippe Champagne called this a big step forward for Canada’s biofabrication sector, which has been lagging behind for decades.
“This is good news for workers, good news for Ontario’s life sciences industry and good news for Canadians,” said the Minister.
The use of molnupiravir is also not permitted in the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration narrowly voted last month to speed up the process. As usual, the United States is moving faster than Canada on approving a drug related to COVID, including vaccines.
The drug works by synthesizing blocks of RNA from the virus, but by adding so many mutations, the virus cannot replicate itself, thereby bypassing it. It’s for people at high risk of developing serious complications from COVID, and should work against variants like Delta. It has not yet been tested on the Omicron variant.
“History is on the move here in Ontario,” Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli told Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District. “This investment shows that our plan for the economy is indeed working.”
The chairman of Merck said the company chose the Whitby plant because it was already used to make pharmaceuticals and could quickly manufacture large quantities of a drug that is in immediate demand.
Anticipating Health Canada approval, Canada said last week it was purchasing up to 1.5 million antiviral treatments to treat COVID, including 500,000 from Merck, with an option for another 500,000. Pfizer has also manufactured a pill for the same purpose for which it is seeking approval.
But drug therapy does not replace vaccines, Federal Purchasing Minister Filomena Tassi said last Friday. “It’s just another tool in the toolbox, but an important tool,” she said.
One of the advantages of Molnupiravirat is that it does not require hospitalization, unlike intravenous treatments, which makes it accessible to more people. Merck’s treatment consists of four tablets a day for five days.
Clinical trials are being conducted at the University Health Network in Toronto and Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton.