Antiviral drugs that could halve the risk of death or hospitalisation from Covid could be given to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable patients under a new NHS deal.
Health officials said the new drugs would be given to those most at risk from the virus, helping to reduce the severity of symptoms and ease winter pressure on the NHS.
The Government has procured 730,000 doses of two types of drug, which can be given to those who test positive for Covid and to those exposed to it, to prevent severe disease.
The antiviral medicines, targeted at the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, could be dispensed to groups most at risk from an outbreak, such as care home residents.
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, said the treatments would particularly help those without a robust antibody response, such as immunocompromised people.
The deal made by the Antivirals Taskforce includes 480,000 courses of Molnupiravir, made by Merck Sharp and Dohme.
The drug, found to cut the risk of hospitalisation or death by 50 per cent, is expected to go to regulators next month, paving the way for rollout before Christmas.
The Government has also procured 250,000 courses of a second antiviral – PF-07321332/ritonavir – from Pfizer, where phase three trials are under way.
Both have still to be approved by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Pfizer’s treatment is unlikely to be reviewed until the new year.
Officials said that, if they get the green light, thousands of NHS patients will be able to access them to prevent the infection from spreading and speed up recovery time.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said: “I am delighted to confirm we may soon have a new defence in our arsenal with two new antiviral drugs that we have secured.
“Our work is far from done, though – and we’ll continue to secure more innovative treatments so we can protect as many people as possible from the virus, its variants and future diseases.”
A national study is going ahead to gather further data on the potential benefits these treatments bring to vaccinated patients. Further details on the study will be set out in due course.
Antivirals are used for those infected with a virus or to protect exposed individuals from becoming infected. They target a virus at an early stage, preventing progression to more severe or even critical symptoms.
Eddie Gray, the chairman of the Antivirals Taskforce, said: “This is a very important development in our mission to find antivirals for those exposed to Covid-19, supporting the renowned vaccination programme and the NHS over the coming months.
“Should they be approved by the medicines regulator, we could see these treatments rolled out to patients this winter, providing them with vital protection.”
Prof Van-Tam said: “Antivirals bring another key intervention to the table. They will be particularly vital in protecting those who may not get the same antibody response to the vaccines as the majority of the population.
“We will now work quickly to ensure the right cohorts of people receive these treatments as soon as possible, should they be approved by the MHRA.”
Prof Stephen Powis, the national medical director for NHS England, said the treatments would give vulnerable people “the best chance of recovery from this deadly virus”, which he said was “still very much a threat to public health”.
“Tested and trialled on the NHS, these medicines are the latest example of the health service offering patients the world’s most innovative treatments which not only save lives, but could also help reduce the number of people becoming seriously ill with Covid-19 as we head into one of the most challenging winters to date,” he added.