Covid antiviral pill should be priority for Government, say insiders-‘Asleep at the wheel’

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Several antiviral COVID-19 pills are currently expecting approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. According to Eddie Gray, chairman of the Antiviral Taskforce, they should be available in the UK soon.

The group was set up by the British Government in April 2021, more than a year after the start of the pandemic.

Senior members of the health sector have complained about the task force arriving very late, according to The Telegraph.

On Thursday, insiders told the newspaper the effort to secure antivirals had been “nothing like as urgent” as the vaccines taskforce.

One source said: “Were they asleep at the wheel? Probably.”

Another described the programme as a “clunky mess” with “too many cooks,” including Whitehall officials slowing the process down.

The UK has ordered 250,000 courses of the new Pfizer pill, known as Paxlovid, after clinical trials results showed hospitalisations and deaths cut by 89 percent.

Paxlovid has also been shown to be effective against the Omicron variant.

The UK has also ordered 480,000 courses of another pill with lower efficacy, produced by Merck & Co Inc.

Called molnupiravir, the new drug is said to have an efficacy of 50 percent but has since been revised down to 30 percent among hospital patients.

Another drug, the monoclonal antibody treatment Ronapreve, will be soon offered to people at greater risk of Covid.

Ronapreve reduces risk by 70 percent but requires medical supervision.

Lord Bilimoria, president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), told The Telegraph he expected the Government to purchase millions more courses given the results of the drug.

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He said: “The Government needs to be ordering millions of courses, not 250,000. That’s not nearly enough.

“These drugs are truly game-changing.

“If we had shown more urgency and supported the pharmaceutical companies, we could have got these much earlier in time for Omicron.

“If the vaccines taskforce could do it so quickly, please put the same effort into antivirals.

“We shouldn’t be waiting for regulatory approval to get large orders in. Getting this right could be game over for Covid.

“We’re talking about saving our economy hundreds of billions of pounds from endless Covid disruption. It’s a no brainer.”

One course of Pfizer antiviral pills costs around £375.

The treatment consists of 30 pills taken over five days, with patients taking two of Pfizer’s new pills and one of a low-dose HIV drug known as ritonavir.

But the pill could be overpowered by the virus as it keeps mutating.

Just as bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, viruses can become resistant to antivirals.

Sir John Bell, Regius Professor at Oxford University, said the Government’s relatively small orders were “prudent” because the Pfizer drugs risked being “blown out.”

He added: “If we can see a couple of other good antivirals coming over the hill, and we might well in the next month or two, then combining those drugs is clearly the way forward.

“And that could prove to be pretty interesting. But you could blow a lot of money on the Pfizer pills and actually not make much impact on severe disease.”

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