Antiviral Covid pills to keep us out of hospital


When the second red line appeared, Gill Harrington realised her fears had finally been realised. “You get used to seeing that one line on the lateral flow test,” she said. “But to see the two lines — well, it was terrifying.”

Testing positive for the coronavirus is worrying for anyone. But Harrington, a retired legal secretary, has a rare form of blood cancer that has left her with a weakened immune system. Despite having had three coronavirus vaccines, she knew her compromised immunity meant she was extremely vulnerable.

“I’ve been shielding since February 2020,” she said. “I’ve only seen family in the garden. My grandchildren — two beautiful little girls — live over the road but have never been inside my house.”

But despite her fears, Harrington was protected. There was a new safety net: an antiviral medication called molnupiravir, a pill that studies show halves the risk of hospital admission or death from Covid.

She is one of 10,000 vulnerable people — cancer patients, transplant recipients and those with Down’s syndrome — who have received specialised drugs within days of testing positive for coronavirus.

Professor Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, said: “It has been a remarkable achievement for a programme only started a month ago.” By the middle of next month another drug, Pfizer’s paxlovid, is due to be provided for vulnerable people in the UK. The pills have even better trial results, cutting the risk of death or needing hospital treatment by 89 per cent.

As Britain prepares for a post-pandemic world, scientists increasingly regard antivirals as a second line of defence against future coronavirus outbreaks. “The vaccine programme is our main pharmaceutical intervention and obviously will continue to be very important,” Powis said. “But drugs are the second key therapeutic intervention.”

Antivirals are also attractive for another reason. If a catastrophic variant arrived that bypassed our vaccines, scientists are confident antivirals would remain effective.

The Covid wave is receding. Restrictions are being eased. But the virus itself has not gone away. There will be future outbreaks and future waves. Combined with vaccines, however, antivirals promise to help ensure that Covid never again causes the kind of death and disruption we have seen during the past two years.