DRUG shortages in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted the federal government to search for new ways to shore up Canada’s supply of much-needed medications used for patients on ventilators.
Seeing a global spike in demand for medications used to care for COVID-19 patients in Canada, the federal government recently renewed calls to drug companies, asking for detailed inventory information about high-demand pharmaceuticals in an attempt to allow for exceptional imports to Canada. Doing so could allow manufacturers to obtain special approval to bring into Canada medications that were labelled for use in other countries.
As hospitals deal with two to three times the usual demand for these drugs, the government is trying to secure a year’s worth of potent painkillers, sedatives and medications used for general anesthesia, antibiotics, muscle relaxants and drugs used to treat shortness of breath and low blood pressure, according to tender notices posted by the federal government.
The requests for information about the available supply of more than seven pharmaceutical drugs — all used in the care of COVID-19 patients — were first posted on public tender websites in April. Several of them were extended this week as Health Canada tries to gather more information on alternative supply chains for medication such as injectable fentanyl, propofol, salbutamol and methotrimeprazine.
Those drugs have all been classified by Health Canada as Tier 3 medications for which good alternatives aren’t available, meaning shortages of them have the "greatest potential impact on Canada’s drug supply and health care system," according to a statement issued by Health Canada Wednesday in response to Free Press inquiries.
In the statement, a spokesperson for Health Canada wrote the department is trying to pinpoint supply chain issues before drug shortages occur. It is increasing surveillance of the country’s drug supply chains, working with provinces and territories, industry stakeholders and international groups including the European Medicines Agency, the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration, as well as the World Health Organization.
Health Canada didn’t grant an interview request.
The government’s requests for information from drug companies note shortages of the drugs have already been reported based on health-care facilities seeking double or triple their usual quantities to make sure they have enough on hand if needed.
Pharmacists are not seeing current shortages of most of the listed Tier 3 medications, but there is pressure on Canada’s supply, said Christina Adams, chief pharmacy officer at the Ottawa-based Canadian Society of Hospital Pharmacists.
She noted Canada is a "small player" in the pharmaceutical market, representing about two per cent of global demand. Most medication comes from the U.S., China and India.
"We’ll certainly be relying on, in some ways, the goodwill of other markets to allocate some of their supply towards our country, but there is increasing demand worldwide because it is a worldwide pandemic," Adams said, adding shortages remain possible even as restrictions on prescription orders are lifted.
Manitoba is part of a task force working on securing an additional, safe supply of drugs from international manufacturers, and has set up a COVID-19 drug shortage working group, a provincial spokeswoman said in a statement.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.