‘Vital’ at-home Covid pills could be given to vulnerable people this winter

Treatments will need to be approved for use by the UK’s medicines regulator first before being made available to patients through the NHS

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 20 October 2021 19:01
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Antiviral drugs that help to cut the risk of hospitalisation and death from Covid could be made available to vulnerable people this winter.

It’s hoped the pills will be made available to the elderly and those with weakened immune systems who have recently tested positive for the virus or come into contact with an infected individual. Patients would take the drug at home, ideally before they fall ill.

The antivirals, provided by Merck and Pfizer, have been secured in a government deal. But they will need to be approved for use by the UK’s medicines regulator before they are offered to patients via the NHS.

Eddie Gray, chair of the antivirals taskforce, said the pills would help to support the NHS and the UK’s vaccination programme over the coming months, with infections and hospitalisations expected to further rise.

“Should they be approved by the medicines regulator, we could see these treatments rolled out to patients this winter, providing them with vital protection,” he said.

Merck’s molnupiravir, originally developed to treat influenza, reduces hospitalisation and death from Covid-19 by 50 per cent in recently infected patients, according to trial results published earlier this month. The UK government has secured enough supplies of the drug to treat 480,000 people.

The Pfizer antiviral is made up of ritonavir, which is used to treat HIV, and an enzyme inhibitor called PF-07321332.

Large-scale trials are still underway to determine the effectiveness of this treatment, though hopes are high that it will prove to be a success. Some 250,000 courses have been ordered by the government.

Both antivirals work in a similar fashion by interfering with an enzyme that the Covid virus uses to replicate after it’s gained entry to a cell. This then hinders its ability to further spread throughout the body.

If newly-infected patients are treated at an early stage, often before the expression of symptoms, this can prevent any potential disease from progressing to a severe or critical state.

The government and NHS are now working on plans for the deployment of the two treatments, including the establishment of a national study that will allow experts to gather data on the potential benefits these treatments bring to vaccinated patients.

Before the antivirals can be authorised, they would first need to be evaluated by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), to ensure they are safe and effective.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said the antivirals would bring “another key intervention to the table” ahead of what is expected to be a challenging winter for the NHS.

“They will be particularly vital in protecting those who may not get the same antibody response to the vaccines as the majority of the population,” he said.

“We will now work quickly to ensure the right cohorts of people receive these treatments as soon as possible, should they be approved by the MHRA.”

If the drugs are authorised for use by, they will be the first oral antiviral medication for Covid-19 available in the UK. There are currently two approved ways of treating the disease: using steroids, such as dexamethasone, or by administering lab-designed antibodies intravenously.

The government said that the antivirals taskforce will continue to search for other treatment options.

Health secretary Sajid Javid said: “Our work is far from done though – and we’ll continue our tireless work to secure more innovative treatments so we can protect as many people as possible from the virus, its variants and future diseases.”

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