Health Minister Robin Swann has welcomed the UK Government’s announcement that a range of new treatment options will be made available to COVID-19 patients who are at the highest risk from the effects of the virus.

To date, most COVID-19 treatments have focused on hospitalised patients. Now new treatments have been authorised for use in eligible non-hospitalised patients to reduce the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death. These treatments are a further measure in addition to vaccinations, which remain the best way to protect everyone.

The treatments include the oral antiviral Molnupiravir (also called Lagevrio), procured by the UK Antivirals Taskforce and approved by the MHRA on 4 November 2021, and the monoclonal antibody treatment Ronapreve which has only been used in hospitals to date. Another treatment, Xevudy, was approved by the MHRA on 2 December 2021 and will be deployed in due course.

The Minister said: “We have repeatedly seen how the extraordinary efforts of scientists have helped us in the fight against this virus. From the development of life-saving vaccines to the creation of these new treatments, we should all be tremendously grateful to the experts that have helped get us this far.

“The approval of these drugs by the MHRA, and their deployment here in Northern Ireland and across the UK, will be hugely beneficial for those patients who are most at risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19.  Importantly, these ground-breaking treatments will help to reduce pressures on our over-stretched health service by keeping people out of hospital.

“Throughout the pandemic we have always been clear that we need to fight COVID on all fronts. While these antivirals are an excellent addition, it remains vital that those who have not been vaccinated get their jab as soon as possible, and that those who are eligible for their booster come forward. This will ensure as many people as possible are protected over the coming months.”

There will be two routes to accessing new COVID-19 treatments for non-hospitalised patients this winter. The first route is that those who are in the highest risk group from COVID-19, who receive a positive PCR test, will be able to access COVID treatments directly from 16  December 2021. Eligible patients who receive a positive PCR test result will be contacted by a clinician from the health service to discuss what treatments could be suitable for them.

In addition, oral antiviral agents will also be available through a new nationwide drug study, PANORAMIC, which is being run by the University of Oxford. Patients in Northern Ireland, will be able to access these treatments through participation in the UK PANORAMIC study, via self-referral in the first instance and, in due course, from the PANORAMIC study NI GP Hub site. This study is open to individuals who meet the following criteria:

  • have received a PCR positive test for COVID-19;
  • feel unwell with symptoms of COVID-19 that started in the last five days;
  • are aged 50 and over, or 18-49 years old with an underlying medical condition that can increase the risk of developing severe COVID-19.

Participants in the study will be randomly selected to either be in a group that receives a course of oral antiviral treatments, or a group that doesn’t. Two different groups are needed so the study team can see any difference in the health of those who received the antiviral treatment compared to those who didn’t. All participants will be able to access any other health service care that they would normally expect to receive.

Patients can sign themselves up to the study via the website: Taking part in the study will require participants to complete a daily diary for 28 days through the PANORAMIC website and they will receive a phone call from the trial team on days 7, 14 and 28 to speak about their symptoms.

Individuals eligible for either the highest risk group or the national study must get a COVID-19 PCR test as soon as their symptoms start to ensure early treatment.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Michael McBride said: “These treatments are a further measure in addition to vaccinations which remain of greatest importance to protect those most vulnerable in our community. This is because they work differently. Vaccines are given when you don’t have COVID-19 to help teach your immune system how to fight future infection by the virus. Both antivirals and neutralising monoclonal antibodies are administered once you have COVID-19 to help you recover.”

Chief Pharmaceutical Officer Cathy Harrison said: This is an important tool in our armoury against COVID-19, however, it’s important to stress that vaccines remain the first line of defence against the virus. Antivirals and other treatments provide a necessary additional line of defence, particularly for those for whom the vaccine may be less effective, such as the immunocompromised.”

Source: Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

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