OTTAWA — Canada could become a global manufacturing hub for a potentially game-changing treatment of COVID-19 with the signing of a new agreement to produce Merck Canada's antiviral drug in Whitby, Ont.

The company inked a deal with Thermo Fisher Scientific to manufacture the drug, molnupiravir, at its facility in Whitby with a mandate to supply the product domestically, as well as to the United Kingdom, European Union, Asia Pacific and Latin America.

The drug — one of the first treatments for non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients — is currently pending Health Canada approval.

The facility has already churned out 10 million courses of the drug while the company waits for the green light.

Last week Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi announced Canada had signed a deal to purchase 500,000 courses of the oral antiviral drug, with the option to purchase another 500,000 if Health Canada gives the all-clear.

"The inventory is there, it's ready to be shipped once we have approval, but we will continue to manufacture for future supplies." said Marwan Akar, president of Merck Canada, at a news conference Monday.

The antiviral works by blocking the enzyme essential for viral replication.

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

Some experts have heralded the development of the drug as a potential turning point in the pandemic. Currently, antiviral medication must be administered intravenously by a health-care professional in a hospital.

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The oral medication could be prescribed and taken at home, allowing patients to be treated before they are so sick they need hospital care and potentially alleviating pressure on hospitals.

The announcement is also a step forward in Canada's efforts to boost domestic biomanufacturing to respond to COVID-19 and future pandemics.

"To me, this is a very big step in how we intend to rebuild our biomanufacturing sector in Canada," said Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne at the news conference.

Canada's capacity to produce pharmaceuticals has been in decline since the 1980s, leaving the country unable to create its own supply of much-needed COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Canada's dependency on foreign supply meant the vaccine rollout was stalled due to overseas shipment delays.

Since then, Canada released a biomanufacturing life sciences strategy to try to rebuild its long lost capabilities.

"We didn't choose the timing of this pandemic. We won't choose when the next one happens. But we can choose and we are choosing as Canadians to be ready for whatever may come next," Champagne said.

Merck Canada has invested $19 million to scale up production of its antiviral drug at Thermo Fisher Scientific's facility, Champagne said, signalling companies are prepared to invest in Canadian drug production.

Merck Canada chose the Canadian plant because of its capacity, capability and speed, Akar said, "and to be honest with you, the trust that we had that the facility in Whitby will deliver as we need it, because we are dealing with a pandemic."

So far there are 50 employees dedicated to production of molnupiravir in the Thermo Fisher Scientific facility, though officials expect more jobs will be created as health authorities around the world approve the use of the drug.

"Obviously the number of jobs will be directly related to the demand for the drugs around the world," Champagne said. "But the fact that we have a global mandate is the foundational starting point for us to be able to have more people involved in the production (and) research of that particular drug."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2021.

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