New oral COVID-19 antiviral treatment is now available in Manitoba, province says

A new, oral COVID-19 treatment is now available in Manitoba, health officials announced Monday.

Last week, the provincial government announced it was receiving a shipment of 1,100 doses of Pfizer’s antiviral Paxlovid, which can be given to COVID-19 patients who are at high-risk of severe illness from the virus.

The treatment, which must be given within five days of the onset of symptoms, could take pressure off the health-care system in Manitoba as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations continues to break records.

On Monday, the province announced that eligibility for the treatment would include some people who have received two doses of a COVID vaccine, with the second dose administered more than four months ago. 

A full list of eligibility requirements is available on the province’s website.

Anyone who tests positive on a self-administered rapid test can be referred for an assessment and a followup rapid test, performed by a health-care provider, to confirm, Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, said at a news conference last Wednesday.

Roussin said there will soon be a process available online for people to refer themselves for the new treatment, whether it was PCR or a rapid test.

Like the monoclonal antibody treatment, this oral antiviral treatment is meant to be given to confirmed COVID-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms in the early stages of the disease, and intended to reduce the strain on the health system from critically ill people.

Paxlovid prevents the virus that causes COVID-19 from copying itself, which helps prevent severe illness, according to a patient fact sheet on the provincial government’s website.

Paxlovid combines a new drug developed by Pfizer, nirmatrelvir, with an existing antiretroviral drug named ritonavir, a low-dose HIV drug that helps nirmatrelvir remain active in the body longer.

The treatment comprises three pills — two of nirmatrelvir and one of ritonavir — taken at home twice a day for five days.

Receiving the treatment does not exempt people from isolation requirements, and is not an alternative to vaccination, the province says.

After months of clinical trials, Pfizer reported in November that Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 per cent compared with a placebo in non-hospitalized, high-risk adults with COVID-19.

The studies also indicate the treatment is likely to work against the Omicron variant, now the dominant variant among new cases in Manitoba.

This is the first pill-form treatment for COVID-19 that can be taken at home. Other existing therapeutics approved for use in Canada — such as monoclonal antibodies and remdesivir — must be administered intravenously in a hospital setting.

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