Britain has become the first country in the world to approve a potentially game-changing COVID-19 antiviral oral pill jointly developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recommended that the drug, molnupiravir, be used as soon as possible following a positive COVID-19 test and within five days of the onset of symptoms.
The government and the NHS will confirm how this COVID-19 treatment will be deployed to patients in due course.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said the treatment was a “gamechanger” for the most frail and immunosuppressed.
In a statement he said: “Today is a historic day for our country, as the UK is now the first country in the world to approve an antiviral that can be taken at home for Covid.”
Separately, Merck said it was expecting to produce 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of this year, with at least 20 million courses set to be manufactured in 2022.
Molnupiravir, developed by the US drug companies Merck, Sharp and Dohme (MSD) and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, is the first oral antiviral medication for Covid which can be taken as a pill rather than injected or given intravenously.
It targets an enzyme that the virus uses to make copies of itself, introducing errors into its genetic code. That should prevent it from multiplying, so keeping virus levels low in the body and reducing the severity of the disease.
Merck said that approach should make the treatment equally effective against new variants of the virus as it evolves in the future.
The UK regulator, the MHRA, said the tablet had been authorised for use in people who have mild to moderate Covid and at least one risk factor for developing severe illness such as obesity, old age, diabetes or heart disease.
Other countries including Australia, Singapore and South Korea have made similar purchase agreements.