An anti-coronavirus treatment in pill form manufactured by pharma giant Merck has become the first to be approved for use after the UK gave it the go-ahead today.
Britain’s medicines agency, the MHRA, said the drug could be given to people with mild to moderate COVID-19 at risk of developing a severe illness such as heart disease.
Treatment would start as soon as possible following a positive COVID-19 test and within five days of the onset of symptoms, the regulator said.
The drug, molnupiravir, was developed jointly by Merck and Ridgeback Therapeutics and in a recent data trial halved the risk of hospitalisation from Covid-19 if given early.
Molnupiravir, which will be branded as Lagevrio in Britain, is designed to disrupt the genetic code of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and is taken twice a day for five days.
“We are now working across government and the NHS to urgently get this treatment to patients initially through a national study so we can collect more data on how antivirals work in a mostly vaccinated population,” UK vaccines minister Maggie Throup told MPs.
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Britain’s rate of infection has soared again recently, leading to fears that the NHS will be overwhelmed during the winter by a flood of new cases.
Last month, Britain agreed a deal with Merck to secure 480,000 courses of molnupiravir.
Treatments for coronavirus have lagged the rapid developments of vaccines to protect against the virus, with so far remodelled existing treatments such as Gilead’s antiviral remdesivir and generic steroid dexamethasone the most common, but these are only for patients in hospital.
Merck said the new drug had proved effective against all variants of the virus including Delta Plus, the current variant of concern that is spreading rapidly across the US and parts of Asia.