The first at-home treatment for Covid-19 could reportedly be offered to patients before Christmas in a bid to protect vulnerable people from the Omicron strain.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid is set to launch a national pilot of the Molnupiravir antiviral pill, also known as Lagevrio, according to The Sunday Telegraph.
Molnupiravir, which can be taken at home, is for people who have had a positive Covid test and have at least one risk factor for developing severe illness, such as obesity, being over the age of 60, diabetes or heart disease.
Under the plans, the NHS is reportedly expected to deliver courses of the tablet to clinically vulnerable and immunosuppressed patients within as little as 48 hours of them testing positive for Covid.
It is understood that hospitals and GPs have been told a series of Covid medicines delivery units were being established to ensure the treatment gets to patients as quickly as possible - once it is confirmed they have the virus.
It comes after the UK Health Security Agency said a further 26 cases of the Omicron variant have been reported across the UK, with 25 of these in England, meaning the total number of confirmed cases of the variant in Britain now stands at 160.
Molnupiravir, which can be taken at home, is for people who have had a positive Covid test and have at least one risk factor for developing severe illness, such as obesity (file photo)
Health Secretary Sajid Javid (pictured) is reportedly set to launch a national pilot of the Molnupiravir antiviral pill - also known as Lagevrio
Last month, the UK became the first country in the world to license the use of the drug - from Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) - in a move described as a 'game-changer' by Mr Javid.
But just over a week ago, England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned its use may have to be reconsidered in the light of the emergence of Omicron.
Prof Whitty told a Downing Street press conference: 'On the anti-virals, we are going to have to do a bit of a rethink on the basis of this new variant, just to be confident we've got the right indications from it.
'There's a variety of ways you could use it in different ways, and what we need to make sure is whatever stock we've got of these, what appear to be highly effective drugs, that we use in the most effective way and for the right people.
'Where you are in the pathway right from the very beginning… working out their place, we do need to think through and I think we probably need to do a rethink of it just to make sure with the new variant, we're targeting in the right direction.'
The UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had previously said the drug is safe and effective at reducing the risk of hospital admission and death in people with mild to moderate Covid who are at extra risk from the virus.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: 'The UK has proven itself to be a world-leader in identifying and rolling out effective treatments for Covid-19, including through Government-backed national trials.
'The Government's antivirals task-force was launched to identify treatments for UK patients who have been exposed to Covid-19 to take at home, stopping the infection spreading and speeding up recovery time.
'There are a number of exciting opportunities in the pipeline and we will provide further details in due course.'
The drug works by interfering with the virus's replication and prevents it from multiplying by keeping levels low in the body.
It was announced last month that 480,000 courses of molnupiravir had been secured after a study found it cut the rate of hospital admission and death by 50 per cent in mild to moderately ill patients who had at least one risk factor for the disease.
Omicron may spread more easily than other Covid variants because it contains piece of common cold virus, scientists claim
The Omicron variant may spread more easily than other Covid strains because it shares some genetic material with the common cold virus and is more infectious among children, scientists have claimed.
A study led by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics firm Nference, shows the strain contains a genetic sequence common in other viruses including those that cause the common cold, and also in the human genome.
By inserting this particular snippet into itself, Omicron might be making itself look 'more human,' which would help it evade attack by the human immune system, said Venky Soundararajan, who led the study posted on Thursday on the website OSF Preprints.
This could mean the virus transmits more easily, while only causing mild or asymptomatic disease.
Meanwhile, South African officials warned higher hospital admissions among children during the fourth wave of infections in the country should prompt vigilance but not panic, will infections so far being mild.
A large number of infants admitted with Covid last month in Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes the capital Pretoria, raised concerns that the Omicron variant could pose greater risks for young children than other coronavirus variants.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: 'How much Omicron would impact on the anti-viral use depends largely on the anti-viral.
'I suspect that most effective therapies such as dexamethasone would not be particularly affected by Omicron as this drug targets the body's response to the virus, not the virus.
'Drugs that inhibit viral replication, such as the recently licensed molnupiravir, could drive mutation of the virus such that Covid develops anti-viral resistance – we do see this with anti-virals with other viruses.
'However, it would be surprising that such anti-viral resistance would develop before use of these drugs. Consequently I doubt Omicron would be more resistant to this class of anti-virals.
'However those drugs that are based on monoclonal antibodies are likely to be less effective against a heavily mutated virus.
'I personally do not think that the Omicron will dramatically affect our treatment strategies, with the exception of the monoclonal antibodies, because of their probable reduced effectiveness.'
A US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee also recommended emergency use authorisation of Merck & Co's experimental pill to treat mild-to-moderate Covid patients.
On Tuesday, the Antimicrobial Drugs Advisory Committee (AMDAC) voted 13-10In favor of the drug.
The FDA is not bound to follow the advisory group's recommendations but the agency rarely goes against the guidance of the group.
Recent trial data have shown that it can reduce the risk of death or being hospitalised for those at high risk of severe Covid by 30 percent.
An antiviral pill that people could take at home to reduce their symptoms and speed recovery could prove groundbreaking, easing the crushing caseload on hospitals and helping to curb outbreaks in poorer countries with weak health care systems.
It would immediately become the best option to treat the virus, as it is effective and much easier to administer than popular monoclonal antibody treatments.
It would also bolster a two-pronged approach to the pandemic: treatment by way of medication and prevention, primarily through vaccinations.
In response to the promising data, France has ordered 50,000 doses of the drug.
Meanwhile, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show 127 people died with the virus today, down 3.1 per cent on last Saturday's total of 131.
But 42,848 new infections were recorded in the country over the last 24 hours, up 8.3 per cent on the 39,567 recorded last week.
The UKHSA said a further 26 cases of the Omicron variant have been reported across the UK, with 25 of these in England, meaning the total number of confirmed cases of the variant in Britain now stands at 160.
The Omicron variant has now been discovered in 38 countries but has not yet resulted in any deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)
It is the fourth day in a row cases have risen across Britain, with officials discovering 75 new cases of the Omicron variant in England yesterday.
And the number of people admitted to hospital with the virus also increased 5.6 per cent in a week to 812 on Tuesday, the latest date data is available for.
NHS bosses revealed Britain's accelerated booster programme to protect against the Omicron Covid variant will not start for another nine days, with pressure mounting on the goal to reach all adults by the end of January.
The UKHSA data showed 372,577 booster doses were dished out across the country yesterday, taking Britain's total up to 19.8million people — 34.4 per cent of the eligible population.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said that all adults should become eligible for boosters three months after their second dose — bringing down the wait time from six months.
But the booking service for the jabs is yet to be updated and adults who received their jab three months ago could be forced to wait until December 13 to organise their third dose.
Ministers set a target of dishing out 500,000 doses a day to reach its January goal, but if capacity is not ramped up until mid-December this will not be achieved until February 8 at the current pace of the rollout.
Experts are hopeful No10's 'booster programme on steroids' will help prevent Britain's rising Omicron infections translating into severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths.