(Bloomberg) -- A U.K. trial testing the effectiveness of antiviral Covid-19 drugs in broad populations has started recruiting those infected with the virus, as the government looks for ways to keep people out of hospitals in the face of new variants.

The study -- run by researchers from the University of Oxford and the National Institute for Health Research -- is looking to enroll as many as 10,600 volunteers, according to a statement from the partners Wednesday. The trial will start by assessing Merck & Co.’s molnupiravir, which has already been authorized for use by the U.K. drugs regulator.

People across the U.K. will be able to join the study if they are aged 50 and over or between 18 to 49 years with either underlying health conditions or if they have had Covid-19 for less than five days. All participants must have a positive PCR test within the last seven days.

The study should allow the U.K.’s National Health Service to best plan the rollout of antiviral treatments to the people who need them most. These drugs have offered a ray of hope in the pandemic, and may better stand up against the fast-spreading omicron variant than some other therapeutics. 

While some antivirals have performed well in trials, less is known about how they act in vaccinated people. The study is looking to fill that gap.

“It is early on in the illness, when people are still being cared for in the community, that treatments for Covid-19 could have their greatest benefit,” Chris Butler, chief investigator on the study, said in a statement. 

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Only half the volunteers will receive the antiviral drug, with the other half offered the normal care. The trial will also assess the effectiveness of treatments on reducing shedding of the virus and their ability to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by giving treatment to some household contacts.

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