The government has said the UK will not buy the drug Evusheld, which can help prevent Covid infections in people with weakened immune systems.
The decision, revealed in an official statement on BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Friday, has been met with criticism from a number of charities who say it means many immunosuppressed people will have no choice but to avoid contact with their loved ones during fear of catching the Covid.
“We are deeply disappointed to hear that the government has today announced that it has no plans to buy Evusheld. Much of our community will be left feeling let down and vulnerable,” said Helen Rowntree, director of research at Blood Cancer UK.
He said the charity was calling on the government to explain its rationale and review the decision.
“Evusheld has been used in countries such as the United States and Israel for months and there is a significant body of evidence showing that this drug can reduce the chance of dying from Covid in the most vulnerable,” Rowntree said. “Today’s decision will mean that many immunosuppressed people will be left with no choice but to isolate themselves from their loved ones.”
While immunosuppressed people, such as those with blood cancer or those undergoing chemotherapy, have been prioritized for Covid vaccines, research suggests they are less likely to mount a strong immune response to the shots.
Evusheld is produced by the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca and contains two long-acting monoclonal antibodies that help prevent the coronavirus from entering cells, thus offering protection against infection. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency approved Evusheld for use in the UK in March this year.
The Department of Health and Social Care said the decision not to purchase doses of Evusheld was due to a lack of data on the duration of protection offered by the treatment compared to the Omicron variant.
“We are determined to support the most vulnerable as we live with Covid and immunocompromised patients are a priority for other treatments, access to free tests and vaccination,” a government spokesman said. “We continue to explore the market for promising treatments that can prevent infection, to add to the antibody and antiviral treatments already offered in the NHS. We remain in close contact with all relevant parties.”
Fiona Loud, director of policy at Kidney Care UK, said more than one in 10 people previously considered clinically extremely vulnerable were still protected in May.
“We are very disappointed to learn that Evusheld will not be considered for people who are not well protected by the vaccine. The lack of transparency and communication has left many unable to understand the process followed to reach this decision, and the patients are telling us they are heartbroken after waiting so many months to find out if this licensed treatment will be available. We urge the government to think again,” he said.
Levels of Covid infection in the UK appear to be falling, but remain high. Another wave of Covid is expected later this year.
Loud said: “Despite vaccination and antiviral treatments, the data shows that the immunocompromised group remains the most at risk of dying from Covid, and while infections remain high, it is clear that urgent action is needed, particularly to to people who feel forgotten while the rest of the country returns to normal. The pandemic is far from over for kidney patients. We need action now before the winter months ahead.”
Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, said he agreed with the sense of disappointment. “For the millions of clinically vulnerable people in the UK, the idea that we are 13 months away from ‘freedom’ is a cruel mockery,” he said. “In many countries around the world, licensed monoclonals are a key element of their safety net. It is somewhat difficult to judge what was the divergent assessment of the evidence that has led to such a different outcome for the vulnerable in the UK”.
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