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UK Government launches COVID-19 Antivirals Taskforce

Published on 21/04/21 at 09:01am

A new Antivirals Taskforce has been launched by the government to identify treatments for UK patients who have been exposed to COVID-19, searching for the most promising novel antiviral medicines that can be taken at home, and supporting their development through clinical trials.

The Taskforce aims to find at least two drugs by the autumn, either in a tablet or capsule form, that the public can take at home following a positive COVID-19 test or exposure to someone with the virus.

Boris Johnson said the plans were part of the UK adapting to a new reality, speaking at a Downing Street press conference, he said: “The majority of scientific opinion in this country is still firmly of the view that there will be another wave of COVID-19 at some stage this year.

“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 new Taskforce will sit alongside the government’s existing Therapeutics Taskforce, which will continue its work to identify and supply treatments found to be effective in clinical trials, for all stages of a patient’s exposure and response to COVID-19.

This new drive from the government will aim to find drugs that work against the virus – and its variants – in the early stages of disease. Most of the drugs discovered thus far have been for use in patients who are severely ill in hospital. Dexamethasone, a cheap steroid already in widespread use, is the biggest breakthrough from the Therapeutics Taskforce thus far.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “The UK is leading the world in finding and rolling out effective treatments for COVID-19, having identified dexamethasone, which has saved over a million lives worldwide, and tocilizumab.

“In combination with our fantastic vaccination programme, medicines are a vital weapon to protect our loved ones from this terrible virus. 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.”

For the first time since September, the latest figures show that fewer than 2,000 COVID-19 patients are in hospital. Therefore, the focus has now moved on towards drugs that could help stop mild COVID-19 infection from progressing to a more serious illness.

Many treatments currently being used are given intravenously or by infusion, which makes them hard to use at home, so the development of treatments in pill or capsule form would greatly improve access to treatment.

Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, said: “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.

The government has said there will now 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.

Kat Jenkins

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