Skip to main content

Covid-19: Antiviral Pills

Volume 818: debated on Monday 31 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government which, if any, antiviral pills for the treatment of COVID-19 they plan on making available for distribution in the United Kingdom.

Me again. The UK Government have agreed deals to secure a total of nearly 5 million patient courses of the oral antiviral treatments molnupiravir and Paxlovid in our efforts to reduce the impact of Covid-19 across the UK. We were the first country in the world to begin rolling out oral antivirals in the community, which we are doing through a new national study called PANORAMIC and through Covid medicine delivery units for those at the highest risk of Covid-19.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his useful Answer, as always. We are grateful to Kate Bingham and the Prime Minister for making the anti-Covid vaccinations available to all of us on the National Health Service. However, the Covid tests to travel abroad were only available privately. In answer to previous Questions and now, the Minister told us that HMG have bought the new antiviral pills, molnupiravir and Paxlovid. I just want to make sure, by asking the Minister, whether these pills will be available only on the National Health Service or privately.

At the moment, they are available to anyone in an at-risk group and unable to have a vaccine. In addition, we have started a new trial to get more data—called the PANORMIC trial—including anyone over 50 who has tested positive through a PCR test and anyone in an at-risk group between 18 and 49 who catches Covid. The difference between vaccinations and antivirals is that vaccinations are there to stop someone getting Covid, or to make sure that they do not suffer the worst symptoms, whereas antivirals are given to anyone who has tested positive.

My Lords, we welcome the news over the weekend about high-risk patients getting the Paxlovid antiviral drug from 10 February through the NHS if they test positive. There are also very positive results about the Molnupiravir drug, which has already been rolled out to high-risk patients through the Oxford University study. The British Liver Trust, Kidney Care UK and Cystic Fibrosis Trust are leading urgent calls for people suffering with these very vulnerable conditions to sign up to take part in the on-going clinical trials, which are essential in gathering further evidence and information. What action are the Government taking to ensure that doctors and patients have the latest information about the drug and the trials and to combat the ill-informed and dangerous antiviral scepticism that we know will be forthcoming?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question and for making people aware of the PANORAMIC study. One of the things that we are trying to do is look at the communication programme. If we look at the antiviral taskforce, we are looking at a number of different communication channels. For example, tomorrow morning, I believe, I will be co-chairing a webinar with many black and minority ethnic groups and activists to see how we can roll out and get their support in rolling out to those communities. We are looking at a number of different channels and particularly working with a lot of the charities which specialise in things such as chronic kidney disease, liver disease—I have a long list of conditions, which I will not read out now.

Priority test kits are meant to have been sent to people with immune conditions, so that they get the antivirals within five days of having Covid symptoms. Tens of thousands of people have not got these priority tests and, as Leukaemia Care has said, patients have been sent round in circles having to make up to 20 phone calls to get the test kits. Why has this mess arisen and what are the Government doing to solve it as a matter of urgency?

I thank the noble Lord for making me aware of this. I was not aware of this. I was told test kits were available to anyone who was considered immunosuppressed or vulnerable in advance. Given what the noble Lord has said, it is important that I investigate and write to him.

My Lords, I am not aware of any medication at all for the treatment of chronic fatigue as a result of Covid. What is the relevance of the recent research into the microscopic damage to the lungs caused by Covid? Are the Government funding any research into finding medications that could cure chronic fatigue?

One of the interesting things about having this role is the number of different stakeholders I speak to and all the wonderful research into vaccines and antivirals for different conditions. I am not aware of any current research into the condition that the noble Baroness refers to. However, just because I am not aware, does not mean it is not happening. I will find out and write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the Government have long said that the problem with vaccines globally has been not supply but distribution. What proposals will the Government bring forward to illustrate how the antivirals will be distributed and supplied globally?

That is a very good question. Clearly the focus up until now has been on making sure that vaccines are distributed worldwide working with G7 and G20 partners. When we talk about health partnerships, one of the issues that many other countries raise with us is the supply of vaccines and local manufacture. To date, I am not aware of conversations about antivirals, but I will certainly look into that.

My Lords, I am not quite certain whether my noble friend answered my noble friend Lady Rawlings’s question as to whether these antiviral pills can be purchased. He mentioned that they would be available for the vulnerable, but what about the purchase element?

My Lords, antivirals have shown their efficacy against HIV, hepatitis C, influenza, and now, thanks to the Eddie Gray Antivirals Taskforce, against Covid—but they work only if they attack the disease at the very earliest stage, often before symptoms even manifest themselves. We are going to see a great investment in antivirals, so what steps is the NHS taking to adapt to this new form of medicine distribution and to get antivirals into the hands of patients at the earliest possible stage? Five days simply is not early enough.

I thank my noble friend for all the work that he put in during his time as the relevant Minister in pushing the Antiviral Taskforce and ensuring the rollout of these antivirals. Since December, patients who are eligible and receive a positive PCR result are referred for treatment into a Covid medicines delivery unit. In addition, the UK Health Security Agency has sent PCR tests to around 1.3 million patients who are eligible for antivirals—bearing in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, which I need to look into. We are also working with the devolved Administrations to look at whether the NHS could deploy antivirals to a wider group of patients, with an emphasis on rapid identification and treatment, and assuming that we see positive results from the Panoramic trial.

My Lords, following on from my noble friend Lady Meacher’s question, what help is to be given to the estimated one million-plus people in the UK with long Covid, in terms of both rehabilitation and financial support? This is a major concern.

The noble Earl will be aware, given all the news stories around it, that many people will be concerned about the effects of long Covid. I know there have been studies and interesting stories in the press about the long-term impact. As I said to the noble Baroness, I will find out what is being done in detail and write to her.

My Lords, for the Minister’s information, a trial is currently going on using xenon gas and MRI scans, which is looking particularly at the damage to lungs as a result of long Covid. It might be useful for him to get his officials to advise him on this.

I thank the noble Lord. Maybe next time I get a question like that I will ask the Lord Speaker whether I could delegate the answer to him.