UK strikes deals for two antiviral drugs to help combat COVID surge this winter


Health Secretary Sajid Javid has hailed two possible new additions to the UK’s “armoury of life-saving measures” to tackle COVID-19.

The government’s antivirals taskforce has struck deals for two new coronavirus treatments, which – if they are approved by the medicines regulator – are expected to be given to those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

The agreements have seen the UK secure 480,000 courses of Molnupiravir – produced by Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD) – which has been proven in clinical trials to reduce the risk of hospitalisation or death for at-risk non-hospitalised adults with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms by 50%.

The US has already struck a $1.2bn deal to purchase around 1.7m courses of Molnupiravir, should it be approved by the American regulator.

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In an announcement on Wednesday, it was revealed the UK’s taskforce has also signed a deal for 250,000 courses of a drug called PF-07321332/ritonavir – produced by Pfizer – for which clinical trials are continuing.

Ritonavir is an older medication widely used in combination treatments for HIV infection.

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When it was launched in April, the antivirals taskforce was charged with finding at least two effective treatments this year, either in a tablet or capsule form, that the public can take at home following a positive COVID-19 test or exposure to someone with the virus.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid told a Downing Street news conference today that there are some “promising developments” around antivirals disrupting the way coronavirus develops and multiplies.

“I’m pleased to announce that we have signed two landmark deals securing hundreds of thousands of doses of two new antivirals from Pfizer,” he said.

An experimental COVID-19 treatment pill called molnupiravir being developed by Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP. Pic: Merck & Co Inc
The UK has struck a deal for 480,000 courses of Molnupiravir

These antivirals have the potential to speed up recovery time and to stop infections from progressing. If these treatments get MHRA approval, then we can provide some of the most vulnerable patients with vital protection this winter. And I want to deploy them as quickly as possible.”

Should the two treatments be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), thousands of NHS patients are expected to be able to access the treatments to prevent the virus from spreading and speed up recovery time.

The two new antivirals are expected to be given to those most at risk from the virus, helping to reduce the severity of symptoms and ease pressure on the NHS this winter.

Both the government and NHS are working on plans for the deployment of the treatments, including on a national study to gain further data on the potential benefits of the treatments for vaccinated patients.

Mr Javid earlier said: “Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have been building an armoury of life-saving measures to tackle the virus and protect the country – including our phenomenal vaccination programme and therapeutics.

“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.”

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said: “The COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics that have been rolled out to tens of millions of UK patients have had a critical impact on this pandemic, and antivirals bring another key intervention to the table.

“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.

“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.”

Professor Stephen Powis, National Medical Director for NHS England, said the new treatment will “add to the health service’s armoury” in giving the country’s most vulnerable the best chance of recovery from COVID-19.

He added: “Tested and trialled on the NHS these medicines are the latest example of the health service offering patients the world’s most innovative treatments, which not only save lives, but could also help reduce the number of people becoming seriously ill with COVID-19, as we head into one of the most challenging winters to date.”

Sky’s science correspondent, Thomas Moore, said: “It’s going to a few weeks yet before the new antiviral drugs are going to make a significant difference to hospitalisations and deaths.

“Both will only be rolled out in a limited way as part of a clinical trial, with details yet to be decided. And both still need to be approved by the medical regulator.

“Studies that have already been done on the drug Molnupiravir show that it halves the risk of serious disease and death in at-risk patients if they are treated at an early stage.

“Trials on the other – called ritonavir – are still ongoing.

“They look promising. But the question is how big a difference do they make when people have already had two doses of the vaccine.”

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