Is time running out to protect the vulnerable against COVID-19 this winter?

Topics covered: COVID-19, Department of Health and Social Care, UK Government

Campaigners backed by charities such as Kidney Care UK and the MS Society and more than 120 medical experts have a collective message to the UK Government on 18 October 2022. They have stated that time is now running out, ahead of another winter during which the most vulnerable will yet again have to shield from COVID-19. There are currently around 500,000 people in the UK with suppressed immune systems. That means their bodies struggle to produce antibodies, so the existing vaccines offer them little or no protection, leaving them very vulnerable to COVID-19. They are urging the Department of Health and Social Care (“DHSC”) to buy a drug called Evusheld to provide some protection against the virus. However, DHSC is reluctant to do so as they believe it is not yet clear from data on how long that protection will last when up against the Omicron variant.

Why is the drug Evusheld so important?

One individual Blanche Hampton has lupus, a condition where her immune system has turned against her, she is one of 500,000 people in the UK currently with suppressed immune systems. The drugs she takes to control the lupus also suppress her immune system, this means her body has no active defences against COVID-19. As a result, Blanche Hampton has been shielding for two and a half years, but she believes Evusheld would offer a chance for at least some kind of existence outside of her small flat.

“Evusheld would give me a layer of protection, that is better than nothing. Because that’s what I have currently – nothing. I’m expensive and expendable. So, you know, the sooner people like me disappear, the easier it will be for everybody. So this thing is draining me of any desire to really continue with my life, because it isn’t a life.”

The drug called Evusheld, is manufactured by AstraZeneca, and it was approved by the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency on 17 March 2022 and is already available in more than 30 other countries except the UK.

Why is the Government reluctant to buy this?

However in August 2022 the DHSC said it wouldn’t be buying any doses until it had more data. In particular, there are some concerns over how long protection may last against the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Government Ministers say they are urgently looking into setting up clinical trials, but it’s unlikely that any results will be available until late spring 2023 at the earliest. Professor Alex Richter, who is a consultant immunologist at University of Birmingham, said:

“The decision to not run with Evusheld this winter is very much a kind of glass half empty approach. But the glass half-full approach is, it has some activity and it has some benefit. And so for very many patients, actually isn’t it better to do something for them rather than nothing?”

However, a DHSC spokesperson said that they were urgently exploring the option of commissioning a clinical trial. The spokesman further added:

“We are keeping the evidence under close review and NICE have begun their appraisal of Evusheld. If they consider the treatment to be clinically and cost effective, it will be made available on the NHS in the usual way.”

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