The government is launching a taskforce that will “supercharge” the search for and development of a new generation of drugs capable of treating people with coronavirus in their own homes.
The taskforce, modelled on the team responsible for the UK’s vaccine programme, will identify and support research into promising antiviral treatments that can reduce transmission and speed up recovery from Covid-19.
It’s hoped two effective treatments – offered in tablet form – will be made available to the public as early as autumn, providing Britain with “another layer of defence” alongside the vaccines in combating possible future waves and emerging variants, said Sir Patrick Vallance.
The antivirals – a class of medication used for treating viral infections and preventing replication – will be specific to people who have tested positive for Covid or been exposed to someone carrying the virus, with the aim of keeping these individuals out of hospital.
“Our new Antivirals Taskforce will seek to develop innovative treatments you can take at home to stop COVID-19 in its tracks,” said prime minister Boris Johnson.
“These could provide another vital defence against any future increase in infections and save more lives.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the team would “supercharge the search for antiviral treatments and roll them out as soon as the autumn”.
The government said the taskforce will also look at opportunities to establish production of the antiviral treatments within Britain – as seen with the Novavax vaccine, which is due to be manufactured in the northeast of England.
Of the few drugs that have so far proven to be effective in treating Covid-19, most focus on easing the symptoms of people who have been hospitalised with severe disease – such as dexamethasone, a cheap steroid that has been in use for a number of years.
However, there has been some recent progress in identifying medication that can treat the earlier stages of Covid illness.
Earlier this month, British scientists from Oxford University found that budesonide, a medicine used for asthma, can shorten the recovery time of Covid-19 sufferers who do not need hospital treatment by an average of three days.
The readily available drug, administered via a cheap inhaler twice a day for up to 14 days, is to be prescribed by GPs on a “case-by-case basis”, the NHS said, raising hope that doctors will be able to start treating Covid-19 patients at home.
The antivirals procured by the new taskforce could be used in combination with one another in order to increase effectiveness and minimise the likelihood of falling seriously ill from future variants, the government said.
Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser to the government, said: “Antivirals in tablet form are another key tool for the response. They could help protect those not protected by or ineligible for vaccines. They could also be another layer of defence in the face of new variants of concern.
“The taskforce will help ensure the most promising antivirals are available for deployment as quickly as possible.”
A competition to identify a chair for the taskforce is to be launched, and further details on its structure will be announced in due course, the government said.
The team will work alongside the UK’s Therapeutics Taskforce, which has already supported a number of British trials and studies investigating the effectiveness of existing drugs in treating Covid-19.
The Recovery trial, which recruited more than 39,000 people hospitalised with Covid during its first year of operation, found that dexamethasone reduces mortality by 20 per cent in patients requiring oxygen support. This rises to 35 per cent for ventilated patients.
Similar initiatives have also shown that tocilizumab and sarilumab, both anti-inflammatory drugs, reduce the relative risk of death by 24 per cent when administered to Covid patients within 24 hours of their entering intensive care.
“The NHS has put research into reality at record speed during the pandemic, and this taskforce will now help us to identify and roll out even more new, convenient treatments for patients with COVID-19,” said Dr Nikita Kanani, medical director of primary care for NHS England.
Professor Stephen Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds, said the investment into antiviral medications was “welcome” but added it “would be useful to understand whether this initiative is primarily to repurpose existing medications” or to “develop novel treatments”.
He explained that, to date, there has been little success in identifying “direct-acting” drugs that work specifically against Sars-CoV-2, due to years-long neglect from the pharmaceutical sector in researching and producing effective antivirals.
Clinicians have instead been forced to rely on repurposed steroids such as dexamethasone, tocilizumab and sarilumab, Prof Griffin said.
“Thus, a concerted boost to the development of novel direct-acting antivirals would be of considerable clinical benefit alongside repurposing, and the timescale for this could be greatly accelerated by the level of resource and logistical support afforded to the vaccine programmes,” he told The Independent.