Vaccines May Help Protect Against COVID-19, but What Happens to Canadians Who Still Get Sick?


On May 6, the European Commission announced a strategy to increase the development and deployment of medicines to treat COVID-19. This is in acknowledgment that vaccines alone may not be enough to address the disease. They recognize that Europe also needs other treatment options in addition to vaccines to “limit the need for hospitalization, speed up recovery times and ultimately save lives.”

The US and the UK have already rolled out such strategies. Both of these countries are making significant investments and actively working to increase the availability of treatments for COVID-19. Canada has not yet announced plans for such a strategy, or for otherwise increasing consistency in the way the disease is managed from province to province – despite the fact that Canada has a higher rate of hospitalization than either the US or the UK.

Across Canada, public health authorities are working to prevent the spread of this disease and reduce the rate of infections by vaccinating as many people as possible. This is important and valuable work.

Canadian Health authorities are also compelled to treat the people who present to hospital with severe disease. In doing so, they are increasingly rationing supplies—rationing care—as emergency rooms are stretched to capacity. Health systems are exhausting their supplies of some necessary medicines, and exhausting the health care professionals who use them.

What’s missing from Canada’s approach to managing this pandemic is a strategy for reducing the numbers of people who progress from infection to hospitalization, and who progress from primary care to the emergency room.

John Tavel of Ottawa was diagnosed with COVID-19 and at 80 years of age he met the criteria for treatment with an authorized monoclonal antibody. Despite best efforts from John and his family, this treatment option was not made available to him. His daughter Robyn asks, “why isn’t the healthcare system using these treatments if we have them here in Canada to use? If it’s the cost—my dad had to go to the hospital on two separate occasions to receive support and ineffective treatments. Clearly that’s more expensive, and it feels as if we’re not using all the tools that we have available to us.”

In building such a strategy to protect people and reduce the burden on our hospitals, we wouldn’t be starting from scratch. The federal government has done important work. With the Interim Order Respecting the Importation, Sale and Advertising of Drugs for Use in Relation to COVID-19, the Government of Canada created an avenue for the rapid authorization of medicines to treat this disease.

Health Canada has also been working with commendable speed to review novel and existing molecules, and to authorize them for the treatment of COVID-19, all while maintaining rigorous standards for its reviews. Companies, in turn, are working to still launch more treatments. These medicines have the potential to save lives, reduce costs by reducing hospitalization, and preserve capacity in hospitals and emergency rooms for the people who unavoidably need care.

Despite the successful uptake of these medicines in other countries with positive patient outcomes, provincial health authorities are saying they don’t have enough data to use these medicines, even while the evidence to support the use of these medicines grows more compelling each week.

Canadians expect our health care system to keep pace with the other aspects of our quality of life. In comparison to other OECD countries, Canada has the 7th highest household net worth and the 15th highest GDP per capita; however our fatality rate for people diagnosed with COVID-19 (2.4%) puts us in 27th place.

Strategies for the broader implementation of authorized treatments for COVID-19 will save Canadian lives, improve the burden of COVID-19 illness, reduce demands on an already strained health system, and help Canada rebound from the pandemic more swiftly. Contact your elected provincial representatives to ensure our pandemic response includes strategies for Canadians who become infected with COVID-19.