UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that antiviral tablets designed to treat COVID-19 could be ready for distribution as early as autumn.

The news comes as a welcome counter to the widely-accepted prediction that the UK can expect at least one surge in coronavirus cases later in the year as lockdown restictions continue to ease.

According to the PM, a new Antivirals Taskforce has been set up to look into treatments for people exposed to the virus in a bid to stop the virus spreading and speed up recovery time.

Much like the Vaccines Taskforce, this new taskforce is looking for “the most promising” home treatments and “support their development through clinical trials to ensure they can be rapidly rolled out”.

Mr Johnson said: “The success of our vaccination programme has demonstrated what the UK can achieve when we bring together our brightest minds. Our new Antivirals Taskforce will seek to develop innovative treatments you can take at home to stop COVID-19 in its tracks. These could provide another vital defence against any future increase in infections and save more lives.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock added to that by saying: “In combination with our fantastic vaccination programme, medicines are a vital weapon to protect our loved ones from this terrible virus. Modelled on the success of the vaccines and therapeutics taskforces, which have played a crucial part in our response to the pandemic, we are now bringing together a new team that will supercharge the search for antiviral treatments and roll them out as soon as the autumn.”

Mr Hancock also said that he is “committed to boosting the UK’s position as a life science superpower and this new taskforce will help us beat COVID-19 and build back better.”

One drug identified as a particularly effective treatment was dexamethasone, which experts estimate has saved 22,000 lives in the UK and an estimated million worldwide. The effect of the drug—which can reduce mortality by 20% in patients requiring oxygen support and 35% for ventilated patients—was first discovered by the UK early on in the pandemic, but is now being looked at more closely as a stay-at-home treatment.

Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said: “The speed at which vaccines and therapeutics such as dexamethasone have been identified and deployed against COVID-19 has been critical to the pandemic response. Antivirals in tablet form are another key tool for the response. They could help protect those not protected by or ineligible for vaccines. They could also be another layer of defence in the face of new variants of concern.”