UK secures two Covid drugs to act as ‘new line of defence’ amid fears of ‘catastrophic winter’

A PAIR of game-changing antiviral drugs are set to join the UK's Covid-fighting arsenal, the Health Secretary announced today.

Thousands of vulnerable Brits could bolster their fight against the virus this winter with two new treatments.

The drugs cut the risk of the infection spreading and speed up recovery in patients who have tested positive, or been exposed to someone who has the killer bug.

In a Downing Street press conference today Sajid Javid warned of rising Covid cases – saying they could go as high as 100,000-a-day as we move into winter.

He added "this pandemic is not over", as he revealed the country is "strengthening it's vital defences" with the antiviral treatments.

US drug firms Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD) and Pfizer have developed antiviral medication, which could drastically ease Covid pressures on the NHS.

The Government has secured 480,000 courses of MSD's drug molnupiravir – proven in trials to slash the risk of dying or going to hospital by half.

Pfizer started a large trial of its antiviral, PF-07321332/ritonavir, in September.

Their drug aims to halt Covid in adults who live in the same household as someone with a positive test.

The UK Government has also secured 250,000 courses of this medication, which is in the third phase of trials.

Both drugs still need to be approved for use, but Sajid Javid said today: “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.

“I am delighted to confirm we may soon have a new defence in our arsenal with two new antiviral drugs that we have secured."

He added in the No10 press conference: "This is great news, but we cannot be complacent when Covid-19 remnants such a threat.

"We've been in a race, a race between the vaccine and the virus and although we are ahead in that race, the gap is narrowing.

"With winter ahead we can't blow it now."

'VITAL'

Merck's drug is expected to be available in mid-November, with Pfizer's a bit behind – likely to be no earlier than late January.

It comes as Covid deaths in the UK rose to their highest daily level since early March on Tuesday, while cases are at their highest for almost three months.

Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, painted a bleak picture of Britain's current battle with Covid this afternoon.

She warned "we are kicking off the winter at a really high level of cases".

Experts have urged Brits to get their booster jabs when eligible, get vaccinated and do all they can to stop the spread of the virus.

Dr Nathalie MacDermott, NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer, King’s College London, said: “Learning to live with the virus does not mean ignoring its presence, it means adopting lifestyle measures that we consistently apply to reduce the spread of the virus, but which do not impose too significant limitations on our freedoms.

The Antivirals Taskforce had been given the task of finding two at-home Covid pill ready for the autumn of 2021.

Known as antivirals, they stop coronavirus from replicating in the body to “stop Covid-19 in its tracks”, the Prime Minister said in April.

The idea is that someone exposed to the virus, or with the very first signs, takes the medicine to prevent Covid from developing into illness.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam 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.”

Drug companies have been racing to get such a drug through trials over the past 18 months.

Dr Daria Hazuda, vice-president of research at Merck, said: “This is a very exciting day for patients in the global fight against Covid.

“It is the first antiviral that has shown efficacy in the outpatient setting for Covid. I think that’s game-changing.”

Both the therapies work by forcing errors into the coronavirus’s genetics when it reproduces.

By doing this it cripples the virus and stops it being able to multiply as quickly.

It prevents the virus from taking hold in the body, giving the immune system the opportunity to quickly fend off Covid.

Scientists in the UK have previously said antiviral drugs would need to be targeted at the most vulnerable people.

Speaking after Merck's findings, Dr Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association, added: “In my opinion, these drugs might have a role if you can first identify people at risk of more serious disease.”

Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, said the side effects of the drug were not clear.

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