No 10 has made deals to buy hundreds of thousands of doses of two new antiviral treatments for coronavirus, ministers have announced, with the hope they will be approved for use in the UK ahead of the winter.
One deal covers 480,000 courses of molnupiravir, which can be taken as a capsule twice a day. Previous treatments such as the steroid dexamethasone have needed to be given as injections or IV infusions.
In trials, the drug, made by Merck, known as MSD outside the US, has been shown to cut the risk of hospitalisation or death for patients not in hospital by half.
The other treatment is PF-07321332/ritonavir, a combination of another oral antiviral treatment used in combination with ritonavir, a drug usually used to treat HIV/Aids. Made by Pfizer, the UK has a deal for 250,000 courses, the announcement said.
Neither treatment would be used in patients before approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, with trials for PF-07321332/ritonavir still taking place. The supply of molnupiravir is expected to arrive no earlier than mid-November, with the Pfizer antivirals expected in late January.
Ministers and health advisers said the deals, made by the government’s antivirals taskforce, could play a significant role in reducing the extent of serious Covid cases over the winter, with the health secretary, Sajid Javid, saying they would form part of “an armoury of life-saving measures to tackle the virus”.
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said antivirals would be “particularly vital in protecting those who may not get the same antibody response to the vaccines as the majority of the population”.
He added: “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.”
Health officials expect that most of the antivirals will be used to treat the elderly and immunocompromised who are most likely to be hospitalised with severe disease. The drugs work in different ways and could potentially be used in combination in the future. The supplies are expected to last this winter and next.
Antivirals, which can be used both to either treat those infected with a virus or protect people from becoming infected, have become an increasingly important part of the response to Covid, with the health department saying that the first used for Covid, dexamethasone, has since saved 22,000 lives in the UK and about a million worldwide.
One key aim for the taskforce has been to find an antiviral pill that patients can take at home ahead of the winter.