Britain Banking on COVID Antivirals to Get Through Omicron Winter

(Reuters) – Britain expects to have antiviral COVID-19 pills produced by Merck & Co Inc and Pfizer available over the winter, its Antiviral Taskforce Chair said on Thursday, as Omicron continues its lightning advance through the country.

Eddie Gray told reporters he expected both Merck’s molnupiravir and Pfizer’s paxlovid treatments to be available throughout the winter period, which he defined as between now and the end of March. Britain has yet to approve paxlovid.

Britain last month became the first country to approve molnupiravir, a nucleoside analogue jointly developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, for which Merck says it has signed deals totalling more than 7 million courses.

A real-world trial of Merck’s pill for COVID-19 patients at risk of serious illness called PANORAMIC is currently under way and has enlisted more than 250 people out of a target of 10,000 subjects.

Recent data from separate trials, however, showed the drug only reduced hospitalisations and deaths among high-risk patients by around 30% – compared with 89% for rival Pfizer’s protease inhibitor paxlovid. Britain has purchased 500,000 monulpiravir doses.

Asked why PANORAMIC did not begin by testing paxlovid’s efficacy, chief investigator Professor Chris Butler told reporters: “It’s not yet approved and not yet available – evidence emerging for paxlovid has been subsequent to monulpiravir, hence the lag between the two.”

“It’s a question of getting on with what’s available.”

The monulpiravir treatment is still under review by the European Medicines Agency, but the EU drug regulator issued advice in November on using it for older adults ahead of providing any wider recommendation.

The EMA said on Thursday European Union countries can use paxlovid early after diagnosis of an infection even though its full review for regulatory approval has not been completed.

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