The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given on Wednesday 17 June in the House of Commons.
“I am grateful for the chance to update the House on the urgent matter of coronavirus.
Yesterday’s treatment breakthrough shows that British science is among the best in the world. As a nation, we can be incredibly proud of our scientists. The UK is home to the best clinical trials, the most advanced immunology research, and the most promising vaccine development work of any country. We have backed the science from the start, and I am sure the whole House welcomes the life-saving breakthrough that was announced yesterday. Today, I will briefly update the House on all three aspects of that national scientific effort.
First, on clinical trials, our recovery programme, which looks at the effects of existing treatments in real-world hospital settings, is the largest of its kind. As of yesterday, 11,547 NHS patients had been recruited to the programme, which is operating across 176 sites in all four nations. In Oxford University’s dexamethasone trial, over 2,000 NHS Covid patients were given a course of the drug—a commonly used steroid—over 10 days. For patients who were ill enough to require oxygen, the risk of dying fell by a fifth, and for the most seriously ill patients on mechanical ventilators, the risk of dying fell by over a third.
This is an important moment in the fight against this virus, and the first time that anyone in the world has clinically proven that a drug can improve the survival chances for the most seriously ill coronavirus patients. In February we began the trial, supported by £25 million of government funding, and in March we began recruiting patients, and started the process of building a stockpile in case the trial was successful. As of today, we have 240,000 doses in stock, and on order. That means that treatment is immediately available, and already in use on the NHS. I am incredibly proud that this discovery has happened right here in Britain, through a collaboration between the Government, the NHS, and some of our top scientists. It is not by any means a cure, but it is the best news we have had.
Throughout this crisis, our actions have been guided by the science, and that is what good science looks like: randomised control trials; rigorous and painstaking research; moving at pace, yet getting it right. The result is that we now have objective proof—not anecdotes, but proof—that this drug saves lives, and that knowledge will benefit many thousands of people all around the world.
Seven other drugs are currently being trialled as part of the recovery process, and a further nine drugs are in live clinical trials as part of the ACCORD programme, which is looking at early-stage treatments. We look forward to seeing the results of those trials. I thank everyone involved in that process, and put on the record my thanks to our deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who led the work in government, as well as to NHS clinicians, the scientific teams, and the participants in the trial who took the drug before they knew that it worked.
Our immunology research, again, is world leading. Last month I announced a new antibody testing programme to help us understand the immunological response to the disease, and whether someone acquires resistance to coronavirus once they have had it and recovered. I am part of that programme, and as of yesterday, 592,204 people have had an NHS antibody test. The nature of immunity research means that it takes time, and we must wait to see whether someone with antibodies gets reinfected. However, with every test, we improve our picture of where the virus has been, and we grow the evidence to discover whether people who have had the disease and have antibodies are at lower risk of getting or transmitting the virus again.
Crucially, that work will help to inform how we deploy a vaccine, and it is moving at pace. Earlier this week Imperial College began its first phase of human clinical trials, and 300 participants will receive doses of the vaccine. Should they develop a promising response, Imperial will move to a large phase-3 trial later this year. Yesterday, AstraZeneca signed a deal for the manufacture of the Oxford vaccine, AZD-1222, which is the world’s most advanced vaccine under development. Its progress, while never certain, is promising.
None of that happened by accident. It happened because the British Government, scientists and the NHS put in place a large-scale, programmatic, comprehensive, well-funded, systematic, rigorous, science-led system of research and innovation. We have been working on it since the moment we first heard of coronavirus. There is more to do in this national effort, but that is how we will win the battle. We will leave no stone unturned as we search for the tools to hunt down, control and ultimately defeat this dreadful disease.”