April 22, 2021, 9:23 a.m. EDT

Treating COVID-19 at home could soon be a reality in the U.K. as government steps up efforts

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By Lina Saigol

Capsules or tablets to treat patients with mild coronavirus disease at home could be ready as soon as the fall, the U.K. government has announced.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that he is launching a new antivirals task force that will “supercharge” the search for at-home treatments designed to “stop COVID-19 in its tracks” and speed up recovery time.

It is hoped at least two effective treatments, either in a tablet or capsule form, will be made available for people who have tested for positive for COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, later this year.

Read: Vaccines are here. That’s no reason to call off the hunt for effective COVID-19 treatments.

Modeled on the team responsible for the U.K.’s mass immunization program, the task force will search for “the most promising” antiviral home treatments and support their development through clinical trials to ensure they can be “rapidly rolled” out to patients as early as the autumn, the government said.

The task force will also look at opportunities to manufacture the antiviral treatments domestically.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said the U.K. was leading the world in finding and rolling out effective treatments for COVID-19. He cited the low-dose steroid treatment Dexamethasone , which has been proven to reduce the risk of death significantly in COVID-19 patients on ventilation by as much as 35%, and arthritis drug tocilizumab , which is made by Roche /zigman2/quotes/206324342/delayed CH:ROG +0.56% , and has been found to reduce stays in intensive care.

Read: Young, healthy adults will be deliberately reinfected with COVID-19 to boost vaccine development

Announcing the new task force at a Downing Street press briefing on Tuesday, Johnson said the antiviral treatments would play an important role in returning the country to normality as England eases out of its third lockdown.

He also gave an update on the U.K.’s immunization efforts, announcing that 60% of 45 to 49-year-olds had now had their first dose of a vaccine. More than 10 million people in the U.K. have received a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the latest government figures, meaning that almost more than 19% of adults have now received two shots.

Earlier this month, the U.K. began to roll out U.S. biotech Moderna’s /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA +2.50% vaccine, alongside the shots developed by U.K.-Swedish drug company AstraZeneca /zigman2/quotes/200304487/composite AZN +0.63% with the University of Oxford, and the vaccine made by German biotech BioNTech /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX -0.71% and U.S. drug company Pfizer /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE -0.54% .

Read: J&J resumes European COVID-19 vaccine rollout with regulator-mandated safety warning

Johnson said the current data suggested the government could continue to lift restrictions as outlined in its four-step road map, with the next major relaxation of rules due on May 17, when international travel could resume.

However, he cautioned that the majority of scientific opinion in the country was still “firmly of the view” that there will be a third wave of coronavirus infections at some stage this year.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said the antivirals could help protect those not protected by or ineligible for vaccines. “They could also be another layer of defense in the face of new variants of concern,” he added.

Earlier this week, India was added to the government’s “red list” of countries after detecting 103 domestic cases of a coronavirus variant first identified in the country.

The rules, which come into force at 4 a.m. local time April 23, mean international visitors who have traveled from India in the last 10 days will be refused entry into the U.K. British and Irish citizens, or those with residence rights, will be allowed to enter but must quarantine in a government-approved facility for 10 days.

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