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Public Services and Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi rises during Question Period in Ottawa on Dec. 3.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada is buying up to 1.5 million courses of oral anti-viral treatments for COVID-19 in anticipation of them being approved by Health Canada.

The government has signed up for an initial one million courses of anti-viral treatment from Pfizer, once Health Canada endorses their safety and efficacy. The company submitted a request for approval to the federal drug regulator earlier this week.

Canada has also purchased 500,000 courses of Merck’s oral anti-viral treatment for COVID-19, with the option to purchase another 500,000 once Health Canada approves the drug.

“Access to effective, easy-to-use treatments is critical to reducing the severity of COVID infections and will help save lives,” Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi said Friday.

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A stock of anti-viral medications will complement vaccines in fighting the pandemic, she said.

“It’s just another tool in the tool box, but an important one,” she said.

Some experts have hailed antiviral drugs as a game changer in treating the disease, since they are designed to block the enzyme essential for viral replication.

“If successful, oral anti-viral therapies may help to reduce the severity or onset of illness in adults who contract, or have been exposed to, COVID-19. An oral treatment option may thus be an important tool to help address the ongoing global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Pfizer Canada’s Kevin Mohamed said in a written statement Friday.

Merck’s clinical trial showed the risk of hospitalization or death was reduced 50 per cent compared with placebo patients with mild or moderate COVID-19.

The oral medications will also be more accessible than the ones that need to be given intravenously, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Friday.

Current anti-virals are available only to people in hospital, leaving them unavailable to people in remote regions or people with mild to moderate illness.

These new drugs could be prescribed and taken by patients at home.

“This treatment will drastically reduce the risk of hospitalization for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people,” Mr. Duclos said Friday.

Health Canada has given priority to its reviews of all COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and has previously said it would work quickly and thoroughly on new drug applications that could help in fighting the pandemic.

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