OTTAWA — The federal opposition parties called on the Trudeau government Wednesday to urgently address the shortage of life-saving epinephrine auto-injectors, known as EpiPens.
But the Conservatives and New Democrats differ as to how to ensure an adequate supply.
The NDP says the Liberals must take all steps necessary to prevent a future supply crunch, even if it means threatening the drug maker with the loss of its patent on the device.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, recommended the government encourage development of a Canadian-based supply chain.
Drug giant Pfizer said this week that the EpiPens it produces are in short supply, with the potential that adult doses may not be available at all in August, a peak month for people who rely on the injectors to treat serious allergic reactions.
"Many Canadians rely on EpiPens as life-saving devices," said NDP health critic Don Davies.
"The minister of health should never have allowed this dangerous situation to develop, and now it's on her to fix this immediately."
The government said it was doing everything in its power to resolve the shortage as soon as possible, and advised Canadians with allergies to keep expired products.
The minister of health should never have allowed this dangerous situation to develop, and now it's on her to fix this immediately.Don Davies
"We continue to work closely with Pfizer Canada," said Thierry Belair, a spokesman for Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor.
Government officials noted that four other companies — Kaleo Pharma, Taro Pharmaceuticals, Valeant Canada and Lincoln Medical — have been approved to sell their epinephrine auto-injector products in Canada, but that Health Canada can't compel a private company to market and supply product.
Critics warn the shortages could continue to happen because there is no firm requirement that manufacturers provide a consistent supply.
Hematologist and medical historian Jacalyn Duffin thinks the government should designate a list of "essential" medicines and also foster a homegrown manufacturing industry, particularly since most drugs sold in Canada are made elsewhere.
EpiPens are just one of dozens of medications in short supply, said Duffin, who tracks drug shortages on her website, CanadianDrugShortage.com.
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U.S.-based Pfizer produces EpiPens at a facility near St. Louis, Missouri, and there are no alternatives sold in Canada.
Health Canada said anyone who has an anaphylactic reaction but has only an expired EpiPen should use the expired product and immediately call 911.
Davies called that response to the shortage "unacceptable.
"Health Canada must ensure that they are always available in sufficient supply. People's health and their lives are on the line."
The New Democrats called on the agency to make it a requirement for patent holders to supply the drug or lose their authorization to sell into the Canadian market.
"When foreign drug companies fail to supply Canadians with life-saving pharmaceuticals, the federal government can and must take action, including expropriating patents if necessary," said Davies.
Tories fear 'even worse position'
But such an approach would lead to an even more critical shortage, or no supply at all, said Conservative health critic Marilyn Gladu, who noted there have been significant supply crunches for EpiPens in Canada three times in the past 12 months.
"That would put us in an even worse position," said Gladu.
Instead, the Trudeau government needs to set the conditions necessary to encourage Pfizer or other drug makers to set up production facilities in Canada, she said.
Pfizer also announced in April that it was running out of EpiPens, blaming the shortage on manufacturing delays. The shortage was felt at that time in the United Kingdom, but not the United States.
Gladu said pricing may be a factor driving Pfizer's product distributors in determining where scarce supplies should be shipped.
EpiPens can cost around $300 in the U.S., although drug chains including CVS sell generic versions for less, while in Canada they are priced at around $100. They are sold for even less in the U.K.