Canada has welcomed antivirals as a new weapon to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and alleviate the overcrowding of our hospitals. Health Canada’s approval of Pfizer’s antiviral, Paxlovid, has evoked an enthusiastic response from many politicians, physicians and journalists. This endorsement of the key role for antivirals is long overdue.
In the rush to acquire vaccines, Canada overlooked the need to simultaneously create an antiviral development strategy. We need to make up for lost time.
It’s imperative that our federal government create a robust, sustainable, organization dedicated to delivering more antivirals as part of our commitment to improving the global response to pandemics.
Antivirals are essential to end this pandemic and get Canada back on a path of new normalcy. To avoid the emergence of drug-resistant SARS-CoV-2, many more antivirals will be needed.
When AZT was first approved in 1987 as a treatment for HIV, it was the only drug available. Now, 35 years later, there are more than 30 treatments available.
Another public health benefit of antivirals is that the treatment of infected individuals at the time of diagnosis can lower their viral load and reduce transmission. Antiviral treatment also reduces the severity of symptoms, reducing time in hospital, and saving the health system money. We also need treatments for surviving patients experiencing long-COVID symptoms.
To discover and develop more antivirals will require funding on the same aggressive scale that was used for the acquisition of vaccines.
Canada has committed $18.5 million annually to create a Centre for Research on Pandemic Preparedness and Health Emergencies. The Centre’s mission is broad, and while it includes developing and mobilizing research, it will not be able to deliver the antiviral therapies essential for a robust pandemic response.
Canada now needs to create a highly focused new entity — a global collaboration for antiviral discovery and development. The mission of the new collaboration should be to establish a not-for-profit antiviral drug development pathway for academic discoveries — all the way to patients.
Such a collaboration should a include a research organization dedicated to antiviral development embedded in a new academic Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE) focused on antiviral discovery. Canada should urgently launch a competition for the new NCE to bring together the medicinal chemists, structural biologists, pharmacologists and virologists that will be needed to discover new antiviral drug candidates.
Canadian scientists would then be able to participate in the billion-dollar philanthropic efforts represented by the World Health Organization’s therapeutics pillar. Such a collaboration with low-and-middle income countries, would foster global efforts for better pandemic preparedness and response.
A global collaboration for antiviral discovery and development would be a pioneering initiative that Canada is well positioned to lead.