Ebola drug Remdesivir approved to treat Covid-19 patients in the UK - here’s what you need to know

Remdesivir – a drug that seems to shorten recovery times in patients suffering with Covid-19 – is being made available on the NHS.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that the anti-viral drug will be given to some NHS Covid-19 patients at the government’s daily coronavirus press briefing on 26 May.

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He called the use of the drug “the biggest step forward” in treatment since the beginning of the crisis, but due to limited supplies, it will go to those most likely to benefit.

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann said: “It is only a few short months ago that we were first faced with this previously unknown virus. Amazing progress has been made in producing and delivering this anti-viral in a short timescale.

“Patient safety will remain a priority and we will monitor the success of Remdesivir through the early access scheme and clinical trials to ensure the best results for all patients.”

Here’s everything you need to know:

What is Remdesivir?

Remdesivir is an antiviral medication first developed by biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences in 2009; it’s currently undergoing clinical trials around the world, including the UK, in the hopes it can be a proven treatment for Covid-19.

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It was originally developed in the hopes it could combat hepatitis C, but when research in that area failed, was repurposed and studied as a potential treatment for Ebola.

Has it been approved anywhere else?

International studies have shown the drug can shorten recovery time from Covid-19 by about four days; in the US, authorities allowed the emergency use of the drug for treating patients with severe Covid-19 in early May.

But Remdesivir’s emergency authorisation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) meant the drug was rushed through without the usual higher levels of review medication goes through before it can be rolled out for treating the public.

"It's the first authorised therapy for Covid-19, so we're really proud to be part of it,” FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said at the time.

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The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) found that Remdesivir shortened the duration of symptoms suffered by patients with Covid-19 from 15 days to 11 during clinical trials on over 1,000 people in hospitals around the world.

Dr Anthony Fauci, head of NIAID, said that the use of Remdesirvir had a “clear cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery”.

Can it prevent coronavirus?

(Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)(Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

While Remdesivir has been found to curtail the effects of Covid-19 and shorten the length of time it may take to recover from the disease, it does not protect against infection in the first instance.

Experts have been keen to point out that there is little evidence its usage will mean fewer coronavirus deaths.

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Dr Stephen Griffin from the University of Leeds Medical School told BBC News while granting the drug to patients with the most severe disease was “clearly the most ethically sound approach”, people “ought not to expect the drug to immediately act as a magic bullet.”

Is it safe?

In the wake of President Trump’s admission of the use of the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine, many will be wondering if this new drug on the block is suspected of being equally as dangerous.

The testing of hydroxychloroquine has been “temporarily” halted by the World Health Organization (WHO) due to safety fears, after a recent study found the drug might increase the risk of death and heart complications.

So what about Remdesivir?

The most common adverse effects in studies of the drug for use against Covid‑19 include nausea and vomiting, typical side effects in antiviral medication.

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According to Medicinenet.com, in trials researchers detected “increased liver enzyme levels that may or may not indicate liver damage,” however similar increases in liver enzymes were recorded in only three US Covid-19 patients.