BRITS will soon be able to get their hands on Covid pills that protect them from illness.
Taken at home during the first few days of symptoms, they prevent the virus from replicating in the body.
The Department of Health and Social Care announced today the drugs could be used by “thousands” of people this winter.
It could add to the UK’s “armour” against Covid disease, helping to avert the need for future lockdowns.
Here is everything you need to know about the two new medicines.
What are the drugs and how many are there?
The Government has secured 480,000 courses of molnupiravir, and 250,000 courses of PF-07321332/ritonavir.
Molnupiravir, from company Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD), has been shown in a study to slash severe Covid (hospitalisation) by 50 per cent.
Pfizer, whose Covid vaccine has been widely used across the globe, has created the antiviral PF-07321332.
It is used in combination with ritonavir, an older medication widely used in combination treatments for HIV infection.
There are no published study results so far, as the phase two and three trials are underway.
How do they work?
The pills would be taken to stop someone who is infected getting severely sick.
Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, said: “When someone is infected by a virus, it makes the cells in their body produce copies of itself.
“This drug works by causing the machinery that reproduces Covid-19’s genetic material to make mistakes, thereby stopping effective replication.”
By stopping the virus from entering cells and replicating, it allows the immune system time to fight it off.
When will they be available?
The pills need to go through a safety review by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Should the treatments be approved, thousands of NHS patients will be able to access the treatments from this winter.
It’s expected molnupiravir will be available from around mid-November, and PF-07321332/ritonavir a little later, but no earlier than January.
Who are they for?
Antivirals are used to target the virus at an early stage, preventing progression to more severe, or even critical, symptoms.
Vulnerable patients are likely to be prioritised.
But it doesn’t mean they will be available from your doctor or pharmacist any time soon.
The government and NHS are planning how to deploy the drugs, including the delivery of a national study.
This will allow medical experts to gather further data on the potential benefits these treatments bring to vaccinated patients.
Does it mean vaccines don’t work?
With life-saving Covid vaccines given to the vast majority of adult Brits, why do we need pills to prevent illness?
Jabs are not 100 per cent effective, meaning some will still catch the virus and sadly go on to die.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said: “The Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics that have been rolled out to tens of millions of UK patients have had a critical impact on this pandemic, and 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.”
How well do the drugs work?
Merck, known as MSD in the UK, revealed their antiviral drug molnupiravir cut rates of severe Covid by 50 per cent in a study.
The study – which has not been peer-reviewed by other scientists – involved 775 people who had recently tested positive for the virus but were not seriously ill.
They showed 7.3 per cent of people given molnupiravir ended up going into hospital, compared to 14.1 per cent of people who were not given the drug.
There were eight deaths, but none in the molnupiravir group.
The large trial was conducted on patients who had at least one risk factor each, for example older age, obesity or heart disease.
Therefore, for a younger, healthier adult, or anyone else not represented in the trial, the effects of the pill may be different to those seen in the study.
Are there any side effects?
Speaking of molnupiravir, Dr Clarke said: “While reports are that the drug is well tolerated, we still don’t have full details of any side effects.
“It’s worth noting that people involved in the trial were instructed to abstain from heterosexual sex or use contraception.
“While this is routine practice with some other medicines, such as cancer chemotherapy, it suggests that the drug has the potential to cause birth defects should someone become pregnant.”
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