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Covid-19 Antivirals Taskforce

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2021

I would like to update the House on the establishment of the Government’s new covid-19 antivirals taskforce.

Following the success of the vaccines and therapeutics taskforces, Her Majesty’s Government are seeking to remain at the forefront of the battle against covid-19 and further develop our standing as leaders in the life sciences sector. The new team will lead the search for novel oral antiviral treatments to provide additional protection for the UK population, particularly those currently deemed most vulnerable, and relieve pressure on the NHS.

The UK’s vaccine programme, whilst immensely successful and vital in pandemic recovery, will not protect everyone. Vaccine effectiveness is not established in all groups of the UK population, and there will be some groups for whom vaccines may not be effective protection, so antiviral treatments will provide an alternative form of protection.

The aim of the antivirals taskforce is to search for the most promising novel oral antiviral medicines and speed up the process of development, manufacture and deployment, with the goal of having at least two of these drugs ready to deploy by the autumn.

We are still at a relatively early stage of the vaccine deployment programme. Our understanding of the implications that mutations of the virus may have on vaccine efficacy is developing all the time. Antivirals can be used for two key purposes: first, to inhibit the virus at an early stage to stop mild disease becoming serious illness. By inhibiting the virus at this stage, the drugs also prevent replication—both within an individual and from person to person—limiting the impact of and spread of covid-19, relieving pressure on the NHS and supporting our ongoing return to normal life.

Secondly, antivirals may also be able to be used as post-exposure prophylactics, to minimise the spread of the disease where there has been contact with known, positive cases.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the UK has proven itself a world-leader in identifying and rolling out effective covid-19 treatments, including the world’s first treatment, dexamethasone, which has saved 22,000 lives in the UK so far and an estimated million worldwide. These treatments help the recovery of patients who have been hospitalised with covid-19. The aim of an oral antiviral treatment is that it will be readily available for use outside of these settings, for example, in a patient’s own home.

Building on the successful work of the therapeutics and vaccines taskforces, the antivirals taskforce is bringing together the brightest minds from medicine, industry experts and across Government and the life sciences to find a new, innovative treatment for patients to take at home. A short competition will be run to identify a suitable chair for the taskforce.

We are already engaging with industry to identify antiviral compound candidates which could be ready for deployment in the autumn, and will update the House with the taskforce’s progress in due course.