As Covid-19 has rapidly spread around the world there has been a mad scramble to find a vaccine.
In the UK, a potential coronavirus vaccine being developed at the University of Oxford began human trials on Thursday.
Speaking at the Government’s daily press briefing on Tuesday Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said he is “throwing everything at” the country’s efforts to create a Covid-19 vaccine.
Mr Hancock pledged £20 million of funding for the Oxford project, and £22.5 million for clinical trials of another prototype at Imperial College London.
“The UK is at the front of the global effort,” he said. “We have put more money than any other country into a global search for a vaccine and, for all the efforts around the world, two of the leading vaccine developments are taking place here at home – at Oxford and Imperial.
“Both of these promising projects are making rapid progress and I’ve told the scientists leading them we will do everything in our power to support.”
Britons will not get preferential access to any new coronavirus vaccines developed by taxpayer-funded UK universities, under a deal announced by Dominic Raab.
The deal with the World Health Organization means Britain has agreed to work with 20 other countries and global organisations including France, Germany and Italy to find a vaccine and to share the results.
The deal came 24 hours after The Telegraph reported that Matt Hancock wanted Britons to benefit first from any vaccine that they funded through their taxes.
Human trials start in UK
Work on the vaccine, developed by clinical teams at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group, began in January.
Now a study involving up to 510 healthy volunteers between 18 and 55 is to get under way in Oxford and Southampton, with three further sites likely to be added.
The UK will join only the US – with two studies – and China, in beginning human trials.
Professor Andrew Pollard, Chief Investigator on the study, and Professor of Paediatric Infection and Immunity, University of Oxford, said they are working in collaboration with worldwide academics to find a vaccine for Covid-19.
“We’re competing against a virus that is killing people all around the world,” he said.
“There is a very good coalition of developers coordinated by the WHO, who are getting together regularly to review progress.”
Prof Pollard added “millions of doses” could be ready by the autumn, if “nothing goes wrong in that complex process” of clinical trials.
“But to get to the very large scale there is a huge technical effort and I think it’s unlikely that could happen before the end of this year,” he cautioned.
Once the vaccine is ready for use in the UK, Professor Pollard said decisions will be made by the Government about which groups will receive the vaccine first. But, he added there are some groups who are “at much greater risk” of the disease, such as frontline workers and older adults, and that it would “make sense to prioritise them”.
Elsewhere researchers at Imperial have developed a candidate which, when injected, will deliver the genetic instructions to muscle cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike surface protein.
This should provoke an immune response and create immunity to the virus.
The team, led by Professor Robin Shattock from Imperial’s Department of Infectious Disease, has been testing the candidate in animals since early February.
Clinical trials are expected to begin in June and the team will look to recruit healthy adults to test the vaccine.
Results could be available as soon as September, the researchers say. The trial is not yet open to recruitment, but will be announced in due course.
Professor Pollard believes the success of the Government’s shutdown as a measure to curb the spread of Covid-19 may hamper the process of developing a vaccine, as the limited number of cases in the community could slow the rate at which the vaccine can be tested.
Alongside vaccine development, doctors are trialling existing drugs for viruses such as Ebola, malaria and HIV. Early results seem promising but, until full clinical trials have been concluded, doctors cannot be certain that the drugs are effective.
It has also been reported that GSK and Sanofi have teamed up to develop a coronavirus treatment, and plan to have a vaccine ready for testing by the end of 2020.
UK vaccine taskforce
On April 17, the government launched a taskforce designed to “rapidly develop a coronavirus vaccine”, as well as scale up manufacturing so it can be quickly produced and delivered in mass quantities.
It will be led by Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Jonathan van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, and members will include AstraZeneca and the Wellcome Trust.
The government has initially earmarked £14m to plough into 21 coronavirus research projects – such as the work by the scientists at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. Today’s announcement of a further £44.5 million for the Oxford and Imperial trials increases this funding further still.
In America, the US government had committed to a $1 billion (£800m) Covid-19 vaccine deal with titan Johnson & Johnson, co-financing research through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda).
Human trials on the vaccine have already started in the US – breaking records for the speed with which such trials can get off the ground. Healthy volunteers in America are being given the new-generation “genetic hack” after it bypassed standard animal testing as part of a highly-accelerated process.
How long does a vaccine take to make?
One crucial advance aiding vaccine research is the development of an organisation called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), set up in response to the lack of scientific progress when Ebola ripped through West Africa in 2014 to 2016.
CEPI’s mission is to rapidly respond to epidemics by providing the money to researchers to develop vaccines.
CEPI is already developing at least eight potential vaccines for Covid-19, and in January announced that a vaccine for Covid-19 would be ready for testing by the end of May.
Researchers are confident they’ll have at least one vaccine ready within 18 months. That would be the fastest humans have ever gone from seeing a brand new pathogen to developing a vaccine against it.
However, Sir Patrick Vallance – the chief scientific adviser – has moved to temper public expectations, saying: “All new vaccines that come into development are long shots. Only some end up successful. Coronavirus will be no different and presents new challenges. This will take time.”
Why does it take so long to create a vaccine?
The biggest hurdle for vaccine development is manufacture and distribution at scale – it is estimated that CEPI needs at least another $2 billion in funding. The UK has already committed £250 million of aid to CEPI, the biggest donation of any country.
Health experts have warned that the virus could hit Britain in “multiple waves”, which has led to fears that some vaccines might not work on mutated strains. But Prof Pollard said it is “not surprising” to see mutations in the virus due to its genetic makeup.
He added: “So far, there haven’t been new viruses emerging, which are unable to be prevented by the types of immune responses that we expect to be generated by the vaccines being developed.”