Britons who test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed to the virus could be sent antiviral tablets to take at home – as the prime minister aims to bolster the UK’s defences against another wave of infections this year.
The taskforce will be charged with supporting the development of new antiviral treatments through clinical trials to ensure they can be rolled out to patients as early as the autumn.
Speaking at a Downing Street news conference, the prime minister said the action was intended as a “further line of medical defence” against coronavirus.
“This means, for example, that if you test positive there might be a tablet you could take at home to stop the virus in its tracks and significantly reduce the chance of infection turning into more severe disease,” he added.
“Or if you’re living with someone who has tested positive, there might be a pill you could take for a few days to stop you getting the disease yourself.”
The government’s aim is to have at least two effective treatments this year – either in a tablet or capsule form – that the public can take at home following a positive COVID test or exposure to someone with the virus.
It is hoped the drugs could help combat any future rise in infections and limit the impact of new COVID variants, especially over the winter flu season.
The aim is for the treatments to stop infections spreading and to speed up recovery times.
The prime minister said, despite the UK’s “progress” in the fight against coronavirus, that “we cannot delude ourselves that COVID has gone away”.
Mr Johnson said he saw “nothing in the data now” that would cause him to “deviate” from his roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions.
But he also warned: “The majority of scientific opinion in this country is still firmly of the view that there will be another wave of COVID at some stage this year.
“And so we must – as far as possible – learn to live with this disease, as we live with other diseases.”
The government will look for the new Antivirals Taskforce to mirror the success of the Vaccines Taskforce, which secured the UK’s access to a range of vaccine candidates last year.
The UK has since had one of the world’s leading COVID vaccination programmes.
Appearing alongside Mr Johnson at Tuesday’s news conference, Dr Nikita Kanani – the medical director of primary care for NHS England – said the NHS was working internationally to identify effective treatments for COVID.
She thanked the more than one million people in the UK who have participated in a research trial so far.
“There are a number of treatments at the moment that are being tested and refined, and what we’ve found is that it’s taken about six days to go from a positive research finding to put that particular treatment into practice,” Dr Kanani added.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock pointed to the UK’s success in previously identifying how existing drugs – such as dexamethasone and tocilizumab that are both commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis – can be used in the treatment of COVID.
It has been estimated that the use of dexamethasone has so far saved 22,000 lives in the UK and one million worldwide.
The new taskforce will sit alongside the government’s existing Therapeutics Taskforce, which will continue to identify and supply treatments found to be effective in clinical trials for all stages of a patient’s exposure.
“In combination with our fantastic vaccination programme, medicines are a vital weapon to protect our loved ones from this terrible virus,” Mr Hancock said in a statement.
“Modelled on the success of the vaccines and therapeutics taskforces, which have played a crucial part in our response to the pandemic, we are now bringing together a new team that will supercharge the search for antiviral treatments and roll them out as soon as the autumn.”
The search for a chair for the Antivirals Taskforce will begin shortly, with part of their responsibility to also look at opportunities to manufacture antiviral treatments in the UK.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, 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.”
Analysis: Vaccines are incredible – but we need new treatments to get life back to normal
By Thomas Moore, science correspondent
The COVID vaccines are good, but they’re not perfect – especially against a mutating virus.
That’s why effective drug treatments are needed to act as a backup. The hope would be that they could stop people becoming seriously ill and reduce the need for disruptive social distancing.
The prime minister announced a new Antivirals Taskforce to speed new treatments through clinical trials and he set the target of finding two new drugs by the autumn.
That would seem highly ambitious, certainly for any drug that has yet to start tests on patients. A completely new medicine would take years to develop and prove safe and effective.
More likely the taskforce will strive to repurpose a treatment currently used in another disease. With a known safety record they could be confident in trying it out on COVID patients.
The strategy has already been used in the pandemic.
For example, the steroid drug dexamethasone was shown last summer to reduce the death rate for COVID patients on ventilators by one third. It’s since saved a million lives worldwide.
Dexamethasone reduces the risk of a runaway reaction in the immune system that can fatally overwhelm some patients.
But, as yet, there are no highly effective treatments against the virus itself.
Doctors have tried repurposing the anti-viral drug Remdesivir, which was originally developed for Ebola. But the World Health Organisation has concluded that it has little effect.
There is certainly a gap there that doctors would want to fill.
A pill that stops the virus in its tracks would mean COVID becomes a mild disease. And if the risks of needing hospital care are low, then you could be far more relaxed about society living with the virus.
Yes, the vaccines have been incredible. But we need new antiviral treatments to get life back to normal.