The large-scale testing of medicines that may prove effective in the treatment of COVID-19 has begun in the United Kingdom.
The trials involve more than 5,000 patients from 165 National Health Service hospitals.
Scientists hope to find, in a matter of weeks, whether the medicines being analyzed in the Recovery trials are indeed effective in treating the disease that is caused by the novel coronavirus.
The Guardian newspaper quoted Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases and global health at Oxford University and the person leading the trials, as saying: “This is by far the largest trial in the world.”
Horby, who previously led Ebola drug trials in West Africa, hopes to have answers by June.
“If it is really clear that there are benefits, an answer will be available quicker,” he said.
Currently, many medicines are in use around the world in the treatment of COVID-19 but none has been scientifically proven to be effective, or ineffective, through full clinical trials.
The Recovery trials will look at the efficacy of repurposed drugs developed for other conditions but currently used to treat COVID-19 patients, as well as new experimental drugs, and convalescent plasma, which uses antibodies taken from the blood of people who have recovered from the disease.
Horby said it is unlikely that the trials will identify a “magic bullet”, but he said they may open the door to scientists developing combinations of medicines that will prove effective.
The trials began as Business Secretary Alok Sharma said at the UK government’s daily news briefing about the novel coronavirus situation that the government is setting up a new task force to oversee the many departments and companies working to develop a vaccine.
He said the project is a “colossal undertaking” that is likely to take “many months” but added that “we live in a country with a rich history of pioneering science”.
“When we do make a breakthrough, we are ready to manufacture in the millions,” Sharma added.
He was speaking against the backdrop of the UK becoming one of the world’s novel coronavirus blackspots.
With many nations reporting falling, or at least stagnant, infection rates, the number of confirmed infections in the UK rose on Friday, to 108,692. As of Friday afternoon, the number of fatalities attributed to the disease in the UK stood at 14,576, a rise of 847 on the previous day.
The steadily rising infection rates are in contrast to falling infection rates in many other nations, most notably Germany.
Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s director for Europe, said advances made in some countries were being cancelled out by poor results in others.
“Of the 10 countries in the region with the highest numbers of cases, there have been optimistic signs in terms of the climbing numbers in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and Switzerland in recent weeks,” METRO newspaper quoted him as saying. “But small positive signals in some countries are tempered by sustained or increased levels of incidents in other countries, including in the UK, Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.”
He said the next few weeks will be crucial in Europe, and, in particular, in nations that seem to be struggling.
“Make no mistake; despite the spring weather, we are in the middle of a storm,” he said.
Meanwhile, representatives of the 9 million workers in the UK who have been unable to earn an income because of the lockdown have welcomed the government extending the duration of a program that ensures they are paid 80 percent of their salaries.
The initiative had been scheduled to run until the end of May but, as the Confederation of British Industry pointed out on Friday, without an extension, employers would have had to start issuing notices of redundancy this weekend, to comply with employment law.
The government has now extended the furlough program to the end of June.
Elsewhere, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the nation’s response to the pandemic on Friday when he appeared before the Health and Social Care Select Committee, during which members of Parliament quizzed him and health chiefs took issue with him about the availability of protective equipment, and virus-testing for NHS workers.
Hancock had previously said the number of NHS staff being tested for the virus was lower than expected because fewer people were coming forward than anticipated.
But health chiefs told him on Friday that workers were enthusiastic about being tested and said sick nurses were even driving for two hours to get to testing centers, only be told to come back another day.
Donna Kinnair, the chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, told him frontline NHS workers were frequently frustrated by the lack of testing opportunities.
Hancock, who has set a target of seeing 100,000 tests conducted each day by the end of April, said earlier this week there is capacity and that workers in the social care setting will also now be tested. On Friday, he added workers in the police, fire service, and prison staff to the list of those eligible for testing.
Currently, around 19,000 tests a day are being administered in the UK, despite the fact that Downing Street claims the nation has built up its testing capacity to around 38,000 tests a day.