The first successful antiviral pill to treat Covid-19 could be available in the UK before Christmas according to reports.
The Sunday Telegraph writes that said the NHS is planning to launch “Covid medicines delivery units” to get the pills out to those who need them. The new antiviral pill, called molnupiravir, will be given to vulnerable and elderly people who contract Covid-19 to take at home in the coming weeks to reduce the risk they end up in hospital.
Last month, the UK became the first country to legalise the antiviral drug which ministers hope will lighten the burden of unsustainable pressure on an overstretched NHS – even if the Omicron variant takes hold. The drug works by interfering with the virus’s replication and is recommended to be taken by people vulnerable to hospital admission and death from Covid.
In a press release dated 4th November, the UK Government said that “The antiviral was found to be safe and effective following a stringent review of the available evidence.”
The press release states: “Based on the clinical trial data, Lagevrio is most effective when taken during the early stages of infection and so the MHRA recommends its use as soon as possible following a positive COVID-19 test and within five days of symptoms onset.
“Molnupiravir has been authorised for use in people who have mild to moderate COVID-19 and at least one risk factor for developing severe illness. Such risk factors include obesity, older age (>60 years), diabetes mellitus, or heart disease.”
In November, the EU’s drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) advised against treatment using the drug during pregnancy or for women who plan to or could get pregnant, adding that breastfeeding must be stopped around the time of using the pill, which is to be taken twice a day for five days.
This is because drugs in the same class as Merck’s Lagevrio have been linked to birth defects in animal studies. The drugmaker, known as MSD outside the US and Canada, has said that animal testing shows its pill is safe, but the data have not yet been made public. The EMA, however, told member states in November that they can now use the antiviral pill to treat Covid-19 in emergency cases.
As reported by Gript in October, the new pill appears to offer “phenomenal” protection against Covid-19, even in very vulnerable patients, according to doctors.
Partnered with a company called Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, the new antiviral pill has no known concerning side-effects, and appears to drastically reduce one’s risk of death or hospitalisation from Covid-19.
The drug, which is among the first oral medicines for combating Covid-19, is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the novel coronavirus, preventing it from propagating itself. However, the company says it cannot interact with human cells.
According to Merck, adverse effects were found to be more or less the same in both test subjects and placebo patients.
During studies into the drug’s effects, which involved 775 volunteers worldwide, patients who received the pill were found to be 50% less likely to die or be hospitalised than those in the placebo control group. Of the volunteers that received the drug, only 7% were hospitalised, and none died. By comparison, 14% in the placebo group were hospitalised, 8 of whom died.
“I think it will translate into many thousands of lives being saved worldwide, where there’s less access to monoclonal antibodies, and in this country, too,” said Dr. Robert Shafer, an infectious disease specialist and expert on antiviral therapy from Stanford University.
Notably, in the week the drug’s effects were announced back at the start of October, Merck’s share prices soared 9% in the wake of the drug’s effects being announced, rival pharma companies’ tumbled.
Moderna shares fell 13% in midday trading, while Pfizer dropped 1.3%. American shares of BioNTech plunged 11%.
During the UK’s lockdown, a national network of drug deliveries organised by pharmacies operated to help people who were unable to safely leave their homes to get their medication, and a similar system is set to be put in place so the new drug can be accessed. Reports state that patients who are immunosuppressed and otherwise highly vulnerable, including those in care homes, will be the first to be offered molnupiravir, which is sold under the brand name Lagevrio.
This is because this group are the most likely to be hospitalised if they become infected, and also the least likely to have produced a robust immune response to vaccination.
Speaking to the BBC, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told the BBC: “The drugs mean that even if transmission spreads it is no more harmful than, say, ordinary flu because you take the fatality out of it.”
David Davis, a veteran Conservative backbencher, has suggested that molnupiravir would allow the UK to avoid new restrictions going forward. Mr Davis said: “These new drugs will allow us to avoid a panic response every time we have a new variant since they will dramatically reduce the death rate and cut the pressure on the NHS as they can be taken at home.”
In October, The Irish Independent reported that Ireland had not moved to place any orders for the ‘game-changer’ drug, despite predictions that it could have the potential to cut the number of Covid deaths. The drug is however under review here, with Ireland’s medicines regulator last month stating that it is working with the EMA in a review of molnupiravir.
Whilst the UK had pre ordered 480,000 courses of the drug by late October, Ireland had yet to join a list of other countries who have purchased the antiviral pill. The US, meanwhile, struck a deal in the autumn worth over one billion dollars to purchase around 1.7 million courses of the drug, while France secured at least 50,000 doses of the new treatment.
While Covid-19 vaccines were pre-ordered under a collective EU arrangement, no similar system has been put in place by EU member states to secure the new antiviral pill.
As news of the emergence of the Omicron variant hit the UK, the Chief Medical officer told a Downing Street press conference at the end of November, that the rollout of the pill could require a possible “rethink” on the basis of the new variant.
Professor Chris Whitty said: “On the antivirals, we are going to have to do a bit of a rethink on the basis of this new variant, just to be confident we’ve got the right indications from it.
“There’s a variety of ways you could use it in different ways, and what we need to make sure is whatever stock we’ve got of these, what appear to be highly effective drugs, that we use in the most effective way and for the right people.
“Where you are in the pathway right from the very beginning… working out their place, we do need to think through and I think we probably need to do a rethink of it just to make sure with the new variant, we’re targeting in the right direction.”
As reported by Gript, Europe has so far only found “asymptomatic or mild” cases of the Omicron variant, whilst the World Health Organisation has said zero Omicron deaths have taken place so far worldwide.