Britons who test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed to the virus could be sent antiviral tablets to take at home under new government plans.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday launched a government taskforce – modelled on the group that secured UK access to COVID vaccines – to identify the most promising new antiviral medicines.
The taskforce will be charged with supporting the development of new antiviral treatments through clinical trials to ensure they can be rolled out to patients as early as the autumn.
The PM also warned of a new coronavirus wave, saying: “There will be another wave of COVID at some stage this year.”
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The government’s aim is to have 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 test or exposure to someone with the virus.
It is hoped the drugs could help combat any future rise in infections and limit the impact of new COVID variants, especially over the winter flu season.
The aim is for the treatments to stop infections spreading and to speed up recovery times.
The government will look for the new Antivirals Taskforce to mirror the success of the Vaccines Taskforce, which secured the UK’s access to a range of vaccine candidates last year.
The UK has since had one of the world’s leading COVID vaccination programmes.
“The success of our vaccination programme has demonstrated what the UK can achieve when we bring together our brightest minds,” the prime minister said.
“Our new Antivirals Taskforce will seek to develop innovative treatments you can take at home to stop COVID-19 in its tracks.
“These could provide another vital defence against any future increase in infections and save more lives.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock pointed to the UK’s success in previously identifying how existing drugs – such as dexamethasone and tocilizumab that are both commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis – can be used in the treatment of COVID.
It has been estimated that the use of dexamethasone has so far saved 22,000 lives in the UK and one million worldwide.
The new taskforce will sit alongside the government’s existing Therapeutics Taskforce, which will continue to identify and supply treatments found to be effective in clinical trials for all stages of a patient’s exposure.
“In combination with our fantastic vaccination programme, medicines are a vital weapon to protect our loved ones from this terrible virus,” Mr Hancock said.
“Modelled on the success of the vaccines and therapeutics taskforces, which have played a crucial part in our response to the pandemic, we are now bringing together a new team that will supercharge the search for antiviral treatments and roll them out as soon as the autumn.”
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The search for a chair for the Antivirals Taskforce will begin shortly, with part of their responsibility to also look at opportunities to manufacture antiviral treatments in the UK.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said: “The speed at which vaccines and therapeutics such as dexamethasone have been identified and deployed against COVID-19 has been critical to the pandemic response.
“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.”
Dr Nikita Kanani, medical director of primary care for NHS England, said: “Alongside caring for 400,000 COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic, the NHS has saved lives around the world through its contribution to developing the first ever treatment for COVID-19, dexamethasone, as well as administering the first vaccine for the virus, outside of clinical trials.
“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.”
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