The Prime Minister’s announcement of the formation of the antivirals taskforce in April 2021 brought new impetus to the search for potential antiviral treatments for UK covid-19 patients.
Effective treatments for covid-19 will be vital to manage the risk of infection, as we learn to live with the virus. Covid-19 treatments are especially important for people who cannot take a vaccine for medical reasons or for whom vaccines may be less effective, such as those who are immunocompromised.
Antivirals may help reduce the development of severe covid-19 and its transmission by targeting the virus at an early stage, preventing progression to more severe disease by blocking virus replication.
The antivirals taskforce, under the leadership of Eddie Gray, has worked at speed to identify and evaluate potential antiviral candidates that meet the criteria set out by the Prime Minister: oral antivirals which can be taken at home following a positive covid-19 test and are available for deployment this autumn and winter.
Commercial negotiations have concluded for the first antiviral candidates, with two supply agreements now signed to ensure that they are available for UK patients. We have secured 480,000 patient courses of Molnupiravir from Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD) along with 250,000 patient courses of PF-07321332 from Pfizer. Payment will only be made, and product delivered following UK market authorisation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Molnupiravir and PF-07321332 are both oral antivirals which can be taken at home to target the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but with different mechanisms of action. Molnupiravir is a ribonucleoside analogue which inhibits viral RNA replication. PF-07321332 is a protease inhibitor which prevents virus replication by selectively binding to viral proteases preventing the cleavage of proteins which are necessary to produce infectious virus particles.
Should these antivirals receive appropriate MHRA approvals, the UK Government intention is to deploy these treatments to NHS patients via a national study which will allow us to collect further data on how these treatments work in vaccinated patients. The antivirals taskforce is working across the health and care system in the UK, including NHS England and NHS Improvement, UK Health Security Agency, and our partners in the devolved Administrations to plan the deployment of antiviral treatments as more data is available. Our deployment plans will prioritise the most clinically vulnerable to covid-19. The Department of Health and Social Care will publish a further update in due course.