Millions of life-saving Covid-19 drugs go to waste after NHS backtracks on plans to offer them to the most vulnerable

  • Paxlovid was to be offered to the elderly, the overweight and those with diabetes
  • NHS England appealed this recommendation, arguing it would be too expensive

The NHS has backtracked on plans to offer a life-saving Covid drug to the elderly and obese this winter, meaning millions of doses already purchased may go to waste.

The treatment, called Paxlovid, is given as soon as possible after testing positive for Covid, and prevents patients from falling seriously ill and ending up in hospital with the virus.

It is currently offered to people with conditions that mean their bodies do not respond to the Covid vaccines, leaving them at serious risk. This includes blood cancer patients as well as those with an organ transplant.

In May the NHS spending watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), recommended offering the drug to people over 70, the overweight and those with diabetes or heart disease. This would increase the number of people eligible to take Paxlovid from around 4 million to 15 million.

The anti-viral drug is intended for use by patients who are considered likely to become seriously ill from the deadly virus, such as elders and people with pre-existing conditions like heart disease 

But NHS England has appealed this recommendation, arguing that the move would be prohibitively expensive, costing about £20 million each year. Instead the health service plans to extend the treatment eligibility to patients aged over 85. It will also include those in the newly recommended group but they must also be living in a care home or already hospitalised with an unrelated issue.

However, millions of doses of the £150-per-treatment drug have already been purchased. Since it has a limited shelf life, many of these doses could go to waste.

Experts also say the decision will put lives in danger. Studies show Paxlovid can cut the risk of death or hospitalisation from Covid by around 90 per cent – and the World Health Organisation recommends that patients at risk of Covid hospitalisation are offered the drug.

‘It’s disappointing that millions of patients will not be eligible for Paxlovid,’ says Professor Azeem Majeed, head of the department of primary care and public health at Imperial College London. 

‘There is good evidence that, even after vaccination, the elderly, obese or diabetic are at risk of severe Covid symptoms. Allowing a wider group of patients to receive Paxlovid would reduce hospital pressures in the coming months.’

An NHS spokesman said: ‘The NHS will need time to implement a change of this magnitude in a way that continues to prioritise people at highest risk from Covid.’