The first patients in the NHS are being offered a new drug to help treat Covid-19. As Covid treatments are changing, fewer patients are becoming seriously ill or dying. So does this mean we are finally taming the virus?
At the start of the pandemic there were no drugs for Covid. In April 2020, I stood in a Covid intensive care ward while a doctor, in full PPE, told me they had nothing but oxygen to treat critically ill patients. I watched patient after patient on ventilators being turned on to their fronts to help their lungs take in oxygen.
It’s a deeply troubling memory that will always remain with me.
Now things have changed enormously. At the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, the critical care unit looks and feels very different. Firstly, staff are no longer in full PPE, because most wards are Covid-free. At the peak a year ago the hospital trust was caring for 90 critically ill Covid patients. Today there are just three.
It is now the exception, rather than the norm, for patients to go on a ventilator. Hospital stays are much shorter and survival rates have improved significantly.
“Two years ago we had nothing,'” says Dr Matthias Schmid, head of infectious diseases at the RVI, who treated the UK’s first Covid patient at the end of January 2020.
“Now we have a range of treatments available which reduce the severity and prevent death in a huge number of patients.”
The focus now is on keeping patients from ever needing hospital treatment. That’s where antivirals come in.
There are thousands of medicines on the shelves in the Royal Victoria Infirmary’s automated dispensary, which is the size of a couple of shipping containers. When one of the pharmacists types in the name of a drug, the robot arm races down the central aisle, selecting the medicine and dropping the pack down a chute.
The box of pills selected is called Paxlovid – it’s an antiviral which, in trials, cut Covid hospital admissions by 88%. The treatment is being dispatched to high-risk patients across the UK who have just tested positive.
Through the Antivirals Taskforce, the government has procured nearly five million doses of Paxlovid and another antiviral, molnupiravir.
Both are designed to prevent a Covid infection from turning serious and form part of the armoury of treatments we now have against Covid.
Covid will not disappear completely, but even if a new more deadly variant emerges it should be managed by a combination of vaccines and the increasing range of effective drug treatments.
Covid has been the biggest challenge ever faced by the NHS. Two years on, hospitals can begin to plan for a future not completely free of the disease, but one where it no longer dominates healthcare and society.