Matt Hancock has announced a new research drive into coronavirus treatments as he appealed for volunteers for trials, and claimed the government will “move mountains” in its efforts to tackle the outbreak.
Insisting research into treatments for Covid-19 was “essential to our plan” for tackling the pandemic, the health secretary said the UK was carrying out world-leading trials.
At a Downing Street press conference on Friday evening, Mr Hancock said the government will “bring together some of the finest research minds” across the UK to design new trials and put them in place at “record place”.
And deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam revealed that already 926 volunteers had come forward for one trial. Volunteers were being sought among coronavirus patients identified as appropriate by doctors, and members of the public were not being invited to put themselves forward, he said.
The announcement came as the latest government figures showed a further 684 people had died in the UK from Covid-19 in the largest day-on-day increase so far, bringing the country’s death toll to 3,605.
It followed the opening of the new Nightingale Hospital in the Excel Centre in east London, which will eventually provide 4,000 beds to cope with the expected surge in coronavirus cases. Similar hospitals are being created in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, as well as two locations announced on Friday in Bristol and Harrogate.
Even without this extra capacity, Mr Hancock said that the NHS has spare capacity of 2,029 critical care beds, following emergency action to free up space as the epidemic progresses.
Mr Hancock said the government had established three national clinical trials covering each major stage of the disease, including primary care, hospital care and critical care for the most seriously ill.
"Just like the Nightingale hospital, one of these was put together in just nine days which is breathtaking speed,” he added. "These trials are looking at the effectiveness of existing drugs and steroids, re-purposed for treatment for covid-19.
"One of the trials, which is called recovery and deals in hospital care, is the largest of its kind in the world, with 926 patients involved."
Prof Van-Tam said that the first trials involve currently licensed medicines including malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and retrovir, which is used to treat HIV.
But the teams are also planning to conduct tests with new drugs still under development in the hunt for a cure.
"This is a new disease where we don't have any proven treatments," he said. "The UK is absolutely determined however to find effective treatments for this virus disease.
"The treatment has to be effective. It also has to be safe. And we also have to understand the right doseage to use, the right patients to give the treatments to and the right time in the illness to give that treatment. This is complicated stuff."
Asked how soon results could be expected, he replied: "I don't know. I think it is going to be a few months, but it will all depend on how quickly patients are recruited into the trials."
Mr Hancock backed up the message, saying the "bigger the trials, the better the data and the faster we can roll out the treatments".
“While this is a national effort to find these treatments, it’s also an international effort. We world the lead in the science of these treatments and whatever we learn we will share because we are all on the same side in this war.
“Whether it's treatment, equipment or NHS capacity we will strain every sinew, we will move whatever mountains need to be moved. We need everyone to keeping playing their part.”
The health secretary also gave an “instruction” for people to continue to stay at home this weekend, even if the weather improves. “We are set for warm weekend weather in some parts of the country,” he said.
"But the disease is still spreading and we absolutely cannot afford to relax the social distancing measures we have in place. We cannot relax our discipline now. If we do, people will die.
"I end with the advice we all know. This advice is not a request - it is an instruction. Stay at home, protect lives and then you will be doing your part."
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