Health

Covid PILLS could be available in UK 'by autumn' says Boris Johnson


People in the UK could be offered pills to treat Covid at home from autumn this year thanks to a new antivirals taskforce being set up by No10.

Boris Johnson today said he will assemble a team of scientists to find ways for people to recover from the virus without going into hospital because the UK must ‘learn to live with this disease, as we live with other diseases’.

No drugs have been decided on but the government is already in talks with pharmaceutical firms about ‘promising’ antiviral treatments being developed, and officials are keen to get new drugs that aren’t already used.  

Most research so far has focused on saving hospital patients and there are currently no at-home therapies for the infection that are routinely used by the NHS. People who aren’t severely ill are generally told to rest and take paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Researchers discovered that the asthma steroid budesonide could cut people’s recovery time by three days if they used a £15 inhaler twice a day. Medical chiefs said there wasn’t enough evidence to make it the standard care but GPs can take it upon themselves to prescribe it to older patients.

Now ministers are banking on experts finding at least two cheap treatments that people can have delivered and take at home from later this year. They will be offered to people who have tested positive for Covid or who have been in close contact with an infected person – if they live with them, for example.

The panel will be made up of government staff, academic experts and members of pharmaceutical companies and the chair’s job will be publicly advertised instead of hired internally.

They are committed to finding ‘novel antiviral medicines’, the Department of Health said, meaning drugs not currently being used by the NHS or sold commercially are being pushed through clinical trials over the summer.

Boris Johnson said the drugs could ‘provide another vital defence against any future increase in infections and save more lives’, and there are hopes they will help stop the new variants making people seriously ill – mutated strains make it more likely that someone will get ill even after vaccination.

The PM said in a Downing Street press conference today: ‘This means, for example, that if you test positive there might be a tablet you could take at home to stop the virus in its tracks and significantly reduce the chance of infection turning into more severe disease. Or if you’re living with someone who has tested positive, there might be a pill you could take for a few days to stop you getting the disease yourself.’  

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the plan to develop at-home treatments at a Downing Street press conference tonight, when he said science is helping the UK get back to normal

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the plan to develop at-home treatments at a Downing Street press conference tonight, when he said science is helping the UK get back to normal

All adults in the UK will have been offered a vaccine by the autumn and teenagers may have had jabs, too, but experts don’t expect these to give full protection.

Some people are unable to get vaccinated and others don’t get total immunity – especially if the vaccines are rendered less effective by new mutated variants. 

Scientists expect coronavirus will keep circulating and inevitably keep making people ill and killing them, the same way that flu does in normal years.

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Developing pills to treat Covid at home, they hope, will help people to nip the illness in the bud and reduce the numbers getting so ill they need admitting to hospital. 

Sir Patrick Vallance, Britain’s chief scientific adviser, added: ‘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.’ 

Antiviral drugs work by interfering with the virus and stopping it reproducing in the body, rather than treating symptoms – this is the same way that antibiotics work against bacteria.

The Department of Health has refused to name any of the drugs being considered but ministers are keen to get hold a new, undeveloped treatment and manufacture it en masse at home in the UK. 

Some drugs have already been given to Covid patients in experimental trials and could be part of the Government’s plans, although buying patented pills from large drug firms can be expensive.

British researchers were instrumental in proving that the steroid dexamethasone could cut the risk of death for seriously ill patients in hospital, and the Government is hoping UK expertise will help it find antivirals, too. 

WHAT ARE THE ANTIVIRALS TESTED AGAINST COVID SO FAR?

Remdesivir is one antiviral that hit headlines earlier in the pandemic and was used to treat Covid patients for some time. It still is used in the NHS and in the US but studies have failed to prove it gives any substantial benefit to recovery.

Remdesivir has to be injected and currently doesn’t come in pill form, however, making it unsuitable for the Government’s plans.

There aren’t other antivirals routinely used to treat Covid, but clinical trials are ongoing.

One already in trials is molnupiravir, which was originally designed to tackle flu but worked against Covid in trials on hamsters and is now being studied in humans.

Molnupiravir, made by the pharmaceutical firm Merck, ‘continues to show promise as a potential treatment for non-hospitalised patients,’ the company said after their second phase study. They decided it was not effective for seriously ill people.

Another, called Tollovir, is being trialled on people by the company Todos Medical in Israel.

Todos Medical said past research had shown the drug could work against coronaviruses in general and that it had potential to ‘significantly reduce’ the severity of Covid. 

Favipiravir is a Japanese-made antiviral drug that is being trialled in the UK in the PRINCIPLE trial.

It is not a novel drug and Japanese health officials have already approved it for flu patients, but it could be added to the UK’s arsenal if trials show it works against Covid, too.

Ritonavir and lopinavir, drugs developed to treat HIV, are also being trialled on coronavirus patients. They have been in studies throughout the pandemic and results have been conflicting, but trials are still recruiting patients.

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US company Romark is trying to get US approval for its antiviral drug NT-300, made using a chemical called nitazoxanide, which it said trials showed could cut the risk of severe disease by up to 85 per cent. Romark is still doing late-scale human trials of the drug and already uses a slightly different version of it treat parasitic illnesses. 

Although it’s not an antiviral, a study of the asthma steroid budesonide found that it appeared to have some ability to stop the virus from reproducing in the airways, while simultaneously reducing swelling the lungs and making it easier for patients to breathe.

The Oxford University-led study found that budesonide could reduce recovery time by three days, on average, by the country’s chief medics said there wasn’t enough evidence to make it part of the NHS’s standard care.

Remdesivir is one antiviral that hit headlines earlier in the pandemic and was used to treat Covid patients for some time. It still is used in the NHS and in the US but studies have failed to prove it gives any substantial benefit to recovery.

Remdesivir has to be injected and currently doesn’t come in pill form, however, making it unsuitable for the Government’s plans.

There aren’t other antivirals routinely used to treat Covid, but clinical trials are ongoing.

One already deep into trials is molnupiravir, which was originally designed to tackle flu but worked against Covid in trials on hamsters and is now being studied in humans.

Molnupiravir, made by the pharmaceutical firms Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, ‘continues to show promise as a potential treatment for non-hospitalised patients,’ the companies said after their second phase study. They decided it was not effective for seriously ill people after testing it in hospitals.

Another, called Tollovir, is being trialled on people by the company Todos Medical in Israel.

Todos Medical said past research had shown the drug could work against coronaviruses in general and that it had potential to ‘significantly reduce’ the severity of Covid.

Favipiravir is another antiviral drug, made in Japan where it is used to treat flu, that is being trialled in the UK in the PRINCIPLE NHS trial. It is not a new drug but it could be added to the UK’s arsenal if trials show it works against Covid, too.

Ritonavir and lopinavir, drugs developed to treat HIV, are also being trialled on coronavirus patients in the UK. They have been in studies throughout the pandemic and results have been conflicting, but trials are still recruiting. 

US company Romark is trying to get US approval for its antiviral drug NT-300, made using a chemical called nitazoxanide, which it said trials showed could cut the risk of severe disease by up to 85 per cent.

Romark is still doing late-scale human trials of the drug and already uses a slightly different version of it treat parasitic illnesses.

Asked if there were any specific treatments in mind, Boris Johnson said at today’s press conference: ‘Obviously there are various shots we already have in our locker like dexamethasone; remdesivir is also used in some cases.

‘And then there are various other treatments with names that sound a bit like Aztec divinities – tocilizumab and various others that we’re certainly looking at.’

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Dr Nikki Kanani, a London GP and medical director for primary care at NHS England, added: ‘To make sure we really focus on prevention and treatment in the community, so managing a rise in infections and variants, the NHS has been working internationally to identify effective treatments for Covid – and huge thanks to the over one million people in the UK who’ve participated in a research trial so far.

‘We know that over 22,000 lives have already been saved in the UK from the use of dexamethasone.

‘What have we got in the pipeline? There are a number of treatments at the moment that are being tested and refined and what we’ve found is that it’s taking about six days to go from a positive research finding to putting that particular treatment into practice.

‘We’re starting to look at budesonide and other treatments as well, and this really gives us a chance to focus and ramp up pace on the use of antivirals particularly in the community and at home.’ 

Scientists said the plan to develop medicines to tackle mild Covid was a good idea but were concerned about the way it gets done and the high expectations set early on.

Dr Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester, said: ‘I don’t know what this magic antiviral is going to be.

‘Normally you must give an antiviral within a couple of days for a respiratory virus – with the flu it is just one to two days.

‘Let’s say you were exposed on Saturday going to the supermarket and not notified until Monday. By then you may have missed that window.’

Favipiravir is an antiviral drug being trialled on Covid patients

Ritonavir and lopinavir , drugs developed to treat HIV, are also being trialled on coronavirus patients

Favipiravir (left) is a Japanese-made antiviral drug that Japanese health officials have already approved for flu patients, and it could be added to the UK’s arsenal if trials show it works against Covid, too. Ritonavir and lopinavir (right), drugs developed to treat HIV, are also being trialled on coronavirus patients. They have been in studies throughout the pandemic and results have been conflicting, but trials are still recruiting patients

Dr David Lowe, a University College London immunologist who has studied antivirals for Covid patients, said scientists are already working on antivirals and there may be no effective treatments available even by the winter.

‘One thing I think is really important is that the taskforce doesn’t try to bypass the usual drug development pathway,’ he told MailOnline. 

‘New or repurposed drugs should first be carefully evaluated in small studies which establish safety and look for signs of efficacy. Only those drugs which appear to be safe and efficacious should then be progressed to larger studies looking at clinical endpoints such as hospitalisation or death.

‘We may not have effective treatments available by this winter, especially as the majority of the current early intervention trials have unfortunately not been well supported. However, the taskforce is hopefully a step in the right direction.’ 

Treatments would be given to people who test positive for the coronavirus or who have been in close contact with someone who has. They could be prescribed by a doctor and given to people to take at home (Pictured: A woman at a test centre in Hertfordshire)

Treatments would be given to people who test positive for the coronavirus or who have been in close contact with someone who has. They could be prescribed by a doctor and given to people to take at home (Pictured: A woman at a test centre in Hertfordshire)



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