According to government experts, antivirals could help to reduce the impact of future waves of COVID-19 and of new variants, adding to the protective effects of the vaccination campaign.
To this end, the government has set up an antiviral taskforce with the goal of identifying at least two effective oral antivirals that could be taken at home by anyone receiving a positive COVID-19 test result or anyone directly exposed to someone with the virus.
It is hoped that new treatments could be deployed 'as early as autumn' potentially coinciding with vaccination centres beginning a drive to administer millions of booster doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
Search for novel antivirals
The taskforce will 'search for the most promising novel antiviral medicines that can be taken at home and support their development through clinical trials' - and aim to support manufacture of the products within the UK.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said: 'The success of our vaccination programme has demonstrated what the UK can achieve when we bring together our brightest minds.
'Our new antivirals taskforce will seek to develop innovative treatments you can take at home to stop COVID-19 in its tracks. These could provide another vital defence against any future increase in infections and save more lives.'
Development speed key to response
Chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance said: '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.
'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 government will soon launch a process to identify a chair for the taskforce, with further details of the plans to follow.