The UK medicines regulator has approved molnupiravir, making Britain the first country in the world to approve an antiviral pill for COVID-19 treatment. Molnupiravir, developed by the US drug companies Merck, Sharp and Dohme (MSD) and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, is the first antiviral medication for COVID-19 which can be taken as a pill rather than injected or given intravenously.
Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recommended the drug for use in people with mild to moderate COVID-19 and at least one risk factor for developing severe illness, such as obesity, older age diabetes and heart disease. The regulator, citing clinical data, said it will be administered as soon as possible following a positive COVID-19 test and within five days of the onset of symptoms.
Molnupiravir, which will be rebranded as Lageviro in Britain, is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and is taken twice a day for five days. The treatment targets an enzyme that the virus uses to make copies of itself, introducing errors into its genetic code. This prevents it from multiplying – keeping the virus levels low in the body and reducing the severity of the disease.
The UK has agreed to purchase 480,000 courses with the first deliveries expected in November. MHRA’s chief executive June Raine described it as another therapeutic to add to Britain’s armoury against COVID-19. “It is the world’s first approved antiviral for this disease that can be taken by mouth rather than administered intravenously,” she said. “This is important, because it means it can be administered outside of a hospital setting, before COVID-19 has progressed to a severe stage.”
Data suggests molnupiravir needs to be taken soon after symptoms develop to have an effect. It should be noted that in an earlier study in patients who had already been hospitalized with severe COVID was halted after disappointing results. Professor Penny Ward, from King’s College London, said if these outcomes are replicated in the UK population, then the number of cases requiring hospital admission could be halved and the number of deaths greatly reduced.
The NHS is looking at administering the drug to patients at higher risk of complications as Britain heads into one of the most challenging winters ever. The UK is once again struggling to tame soaring COVID-19 infections.