People with mild Covid-19 could take a pill or capsule at home to prevent the illness turning serious and requiring hospital treatment, under government plans to fast-track development of treatments for the disease.
The government is launching an antivirals taskforce to find at least two drugs by the autumn that people can take to stop coronavirus in its tracks and speed up recovery from it.
Boris Johnson said the plans were part of the UK adapting to a new reality. The prime minister told a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday: “The majority of scientific opinion in this country is still firmly of the view that there will be another wave of Covid at some stage this year.”
Johnson suggested the antivirals research would form part of a three-pronged approach to tackle this anticipated third wave, including booster jabs in the autumn to combat new variants as well as continuing mass testing.
However, he said that the reopening of the economy would proceed as planned, despite the warnings. “I see nothing in the data now that makes me think we are going to have to deviate in any way from the roadmap, cautious but irreversible, that we have set out.”
The government hopes the antivirals taskforce will match the success of the vaccines taskforce, which bought a range of effective Covid jabs for the UK and has put the country ahead of most of the world in immunisation against the coronavirus.
The new drive aims to find drugs that work against the virus – and its variants – in the early stages of disease. Most of the drugs discovered so far have been for use by people severely ill in hospital. Dexamethasone, a cheap steroid already in widespread use, was the biggest breakthrough. It was identified in the UK’s Recovery trial and is now saving lives all over the globe.
Now that there are far fewer deaths in the UK, more attention is being paid to drugs that could help stop mild Covid-19 infection from progressing to a more serious illness.
The taskforce is likely to focus on antiviral monoclonal antibodies – proteins made in the laboratory to fight the virus as the immune system does. The former US president Donald Trump was given an antibody cocktail that may have speeded his recovery from Covid. However, they are expensive and there have been questions over whether these drugs will be fully effective against variants.
The prime minister and health secretary both referenced the vaccines taskforce in the announcement of the new body. “The success of our vaccination programme has demonstrated what the UK can achieve when we bring together our brightest minds,” said Johnson.
“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.”
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said he was “committed to boosting the UK’s position as a life science superpower and this new taskforce will help us beat Covid-19 and build back better”.
The UK was leading the world in rolling out treatments for Covid, he said, mentioning dexamethasone and also the hospital drug tocilizumab. “In combination with our fantastic vaccination programme, medicines are a vital weapon to protect our loved ones from this terrible virus,” 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.”
Some of the drugs administered in hospital are given intravenously or by infusion, which makes them hard to use at home. “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,” said the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.
The vaccines taskforce was until recently led by the businesswoman Kate Bingham. The government has said there will be a competition to decide the chair of the antivirals taskforce. The new taskforce will work alongside the therapeutics taskforce, led by the deputy chief medical officer, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, which identifies potential Covid drugs and steers them into trials and eventually the NHS.