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UK government announces Covid-19 Antivirals Taskforce

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Taskforce to aim for two treatments this year, but scientists call for longer-term support too

The UK government has announced an Antivirals Taskforce with the aim of identifying and deploying Covid-19 treatments as early as autumn.

The taskforce will search for the most promising novel antiviral medicines that can be easily taken at home, and to support their development through clinical trials, the government announced on 20 April. It will also look at opportunities to manufacture antiviral treatments in the UK.

“Medicines are a vital weapon to protect our loved ones from this terrible virus,” said health secretary Matt Hancock (pictured). “We are now bringing together a new team that will supercharge the search for antiviral treatments.”

The plan is to have at least two effective treatments this year, either in tablet or capsule form, that the public could take at home following a positive Covid-19 test or exposure to the virus.

The taskforce follows on from the successful vaccine taskforce model which was deemed highly successful, and led to calls to mimic it for antivirals.

“The speed at which vaccines and therapeutics such as dexamethasone have been identified and deployed against Covid-19 has been critical to the pandemic response,” said the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance.

“Antivirals in tablet form are another key tool for the response. They could help protect those not protected by, or ineligible for, vaccines. They could also be another layer of defence in the face of new variants of concern.

“The taskforce will help ensure the most promising antivirals are available for deployment as quickly as possible.”

The taskforce will work alongside the government’s existing Therapeutics Taskforce, which will continue to identify and supply treatments found to be effective in clinical trials.

A competition to identify a chair for the taskforce is expected to launch shortly, and further details on the structure of the taskforce “will be set out in due course”.

The announcement was widely welcomed by scientists, although some sounded a note of caution.

Andrew Garrett, executive vice-president of scientific operations at the Irish drug developer ICON Clinical Research, said it showed “ambition for the UK to be at the forefront of research into the treatment of Covid-19”.

He noted that the vaccine taskforce “delivered well beyond expectations” and had set “a high bar, but it is important to remember that drug development is an inherently risky business”.

He added: “The highly ambitious target of having at least two effective treatment this year points to the taskforce supporting the repurposing of existing drugs and/or the latter stages of development for new targeted drugs that are already in development.”

But some believe support for early stage research on new drugs is also needed. 

Janet Scott, clinical lecturer in infectious diseases at MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research welcomed the taskforce, but said: “I would advocate, however, also for putting an effort in parallel into earlier-phase clinical trials to keep the pipeline of new drugs moving rather than focusing all research money on end-stage clinical trials.”

“That way we can have the first drugs quickly, but then have better improved drugs coming through—in my view it is unwise to assume we will have the magic bullet on the first go. Viruses can become resistant to drugs as well as vaccines, so it is never wise to let the research sit still.”

The chief medic, Chris Whitty, has previously said that the UK could do more to support early stage Covid-19 clinical research.