UK to buy antivirals to bolster armoury against Covid spread

Health secretary says infections surge during winter months could pose threat to NHS

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The UK health secretary has revealed plans to buy thousands of antiviral drugs as he warned of a difficult winter ahead for the National Health Service.

Sajid Javid said the treatments would bolster the UK's “arsenal” against coronavirus amid a concerning jump in cases in recent weeks.

However, he ruled out the implementation of “Plan B” measures “at this point” during a Downing Street press briefing on Wednesday.

The new antiviral treatments — from pharmaceutical companies Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD), and Pfizer — will be given to the most at-risk patients, including the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

The Department of Health and Social Care said 480,000 courses of Molnupiravir, made by MSD, have been secured, as well as 250,000 courses of Pfizer’s Ritonavir drug.

Molnupiravir has been shown in clinical trials to reduce the risk of hospital admission or death for at-risk adults with mild to moderate Covid-19 by 50 per cent, the department said.

Both are awaiting approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Sajid Javid warned of pressures on the NHS during a media briefing in Downing Street. Photo: AP

If approved, Molnupiravir could be available by the middle of November and Pfizer’s treatment could be available by mid-January 2022.

Praising deals for new two antiviral treatments as “great news”, he said: “But we cannot be complacent when Covid-19 remains such a potent threat.

“We've always known that the winter months would pose the greatest threat to the road to our recovery.”

He said the virus would be around for the long term and it remained a threat. For this reason, he urged people to take a Covid-19 vaccine booster shot when offered.

“We’ll do what it takes to make sure that this pressure doesn’t become unsustainable and that we don’t allow the NHS to become overwhelmed,” Mr Javid said.

“This pandemic is not over. Thanks to the vaccination programme, yes, the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths has significantly weakened, but it’s not broken.”

Hospital admissions are now approaching 1,000 a day and deaths are “still sadly over 100 a day”.

On Wednesday, the UK recorded more than 49,000 new coronavirus cases, with the seven-day average reaching 45,799, a 16 per cent increase from a week earlier.

The government also reported a further 179 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, bringing the UK total to 139,031.

Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have been 164,000 deaths registered in the UK in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

Updated: October 20, 2021, 6:18 PM