Britain’s Covid anti-viral arsenal will get another weapon within a fortnight, officials revealed today.
Pfizer’s drug Paxlovid, shown to cut the risk of being hospitalised or dying from the virus by nearly 90 per cent, will be dished out from February 10.
Around 1.3million vulnerable Britons – including immunocompromised people, HIV and cancer patients and transplant recipients – will be eligible to get the pill if they test positive.
The most vulnerable have already been invited for a fourth Covid jab, but the vaccine is less effective at stopping them from becoming severely unwell.
Ministers have bought 2.75million courses of the ‘ground-breaking’ pill, which works best when taken within five days of symptoms starting.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: ‘Our pharmaceutical defences are crucial as we learn to live with Covid and the UK is leading the way, especially when it comes to the use of cutting-edge antivirals.’
Dishing out the drug is an ‘important milestone’ and may mean ‘thousands of lives could be saved’, he added.
More than 10,000 courses of molnupiravir, the first Covid antiviral secured in the UK, and monoclonal antibody treatment sotrovimab, have already been administered.
The use of pharmaceuticals is a key part of the Government’s plans on learning to live with the virus, along with the vaccine rollout which has seen eight in 10 over-12s in the UK double-jabbed.
Pfizer’s drug is designed to block an enzyme the coronavirus needs in order to multiply.
This keeps virus levels low in the body and reduces the severity of disease.
While the commercial agreement between Pfizer and the UK is confidential, health chiefs in America are reported to have paid the equivalent of £390 for each of the 10million courses it ordered.
If applied to the UK, it would mean No10 has spent in the region of £1billion to buy supplies.
The drugmaker’s clinical trial of 2,200 adults showed Paxlovid cut the risk of those most at-risk from the virus being hospitalised or dying by 89 per cent.
The results, published in early November, showed just 0.7 per cent of patients who received Paxlovid were hospitalised, while 6.5 per cent of those who received a placebo pill were admitted to hospital or died.
No deaths were recorded among those who took Paxlovid.
The UK’s medicines watchdog subsequently approved the drug on New Year’s Eve.
It found Paxlovid was safe and effective at reducing the risks of being admitted to hospital and death among vulnerable patients with mild to moderate infection.
At-risk patients who test positive will be able to access Paxlovid through a phone call appointment with a member of the NHS Covid medicines team, if doctors believe it is the most appropriate treatment.
Those prescribed the drug will either have someone collect it for them or have it delivered to their home.
Further details on securing the drug will be revealed by the Department of Health in the coming days.
Antiviral molupiravir, which works in the same way as Paxlovid, is already being dished out through the Oxford University PANORAMIC study.
Adults with an underlying health condition and all over–50s can access molupiravir, as long as they have tested positive and Covid symptoms that started in the previous five days.
Until Paxlovid — which may also be distributed through the study — is available, Mr Javid urged vulnerable patients who test positive to sign up for the PANORAMIC trial.
Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director at NHS England, said rolling out the ‘cutting-edge’ drug will put the country in the ‘best position to save thousands of lives’.
He added: ‘While it will still be up to clinicians to decide on a case-by-case basis whether this treatment, or indeed other Covid medicines, is the best choice for their patients, it is an important step in our fight back against Covid.’
The UK has procured more antivirals per head than any other country in Europe, with more than 4.98million courses ordered so far, according to the Department of Health.
Eddie Gray, chair of the antivirals taskforce, said: ‘The UK has secured millions of doses of antivirals for NHS patients, so we can keep the most vulnerable safe from the virus.
‘This is a promising development in deployment of these treatments. The Taskforce will continue our work to identify the world’s best antiviral treatments for UK patients.’
In addition to antivirals, monoclonal antibody treatment sotrovimab is also used to treat Covid in at-risk groups. It is given through an IV infusion at a hospital.
This drug works by binding to the spike protein on the outside of the virus, preventing it entering the body’s cells and replicating.