The U.K. has significantly bolstered its order for two antivirals to treat COVID-19 infection in response to the Omicron variant which is sweeping across the country.
The Antivirals Taskforce has secured an additional 1.75 million treatment courses of MSD/Ridgeback’s molnupiravir and 2.5 million courses of Pfizer’s Paxlovid, the government announced in a statement on Wednesday.
These are in addition to 480,000 courses of molnupiravir, also known as Lagevrio, and 250,000 courses of Paxlovid, plans for which were announced in October.
At that time, the task force said this amount would be enough to treat people over the winter and into the following spring. But the arrival of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which has infected 615,707 people in the last week, has caused an increase in demand for effective treatments.
“Both antivirals in our current portfolio could be vital tools against Omicron,” said Eddie Gray, chair of the task force.
Currently, only MSD’s antiviral is authorized for use in the U.K., and the first patients received the drug last week.
In a nationwide study, anyone over the age of 50 or with underlying health conditions can sign up to the PANORAMIC study to receive treatment at home.
The study, run by Oxford University, is designed to identify who benefits most from these new COVID-19 pills, especially in a highly vaccinated population.
In a clinical trial, MSD’s Lagevrio was shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by 30 percent when given in the first few days of symptoms; an earlier readout suggested a greater impact. Pfizer’s clinical trial for Paxlovid demonstrated an 89 percent reduction in the risk of going to the hospital or dying from COVID-19.
Paxlovid is not yet authorized for use in the U.K. The medicines regulator is expected to approve it early next year, allowing it to also be used in the trial.
Unlike some monoclonal antibody therapies that are delivered intravenously, these antiviral pills are expected to remain effective against Omicron.
Outside of the study, patients can also qualify for treatment with antivirals if they are at higher risk of severe disease from COVID-19 and test positive, such as people who are immunocompromised or cancer patients.
As of Monday, the antibody treatment sotrovimab (Xevudy) was also being made available to this group, after being authorized for use at the start of the month. Tests suggest that this therapy, from GSK/Vir, also appears to remain active against Omicron.
Meanwhile, the EU has yet to announce any deals for molnupiravir or Paxlovid.
A spokesperson from the Commission said that “there is no joint procurement in place” but underlined that information on any ongoing talks was confidential.
The Commission can only begin talks for a joint procurement for the bloc when at least four countries and the Commission agree to proceed.
Meanwhile, the European Medicines Agency has issued guidance on the use of both antivirals ahead of a license, allowing countries to use them in an emergency if their national laws allow.
France had secured a bilateral deal with MSD for 50,000 treatment courses of MSD’s molnupiravir, but on Wednesday Health Minister Olivier Véran annouced it had cancelled the order based on the disappointing trial data. The country has now ordered doses of Pfizer’s drug, with doses due late January, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, Europe has concluded a joint contract for GSK/Vir’s sotrovimab in July for 220,000 treatments for participating countries.
This story has been updated.
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