In an unusually quick time, a University of Oxford project has begun tests on humans – can the scientists make history?
There are currently at least 70 coronavirus vaccines in development around the globe, according to World Health Organization (WHO) calculations – a remarkable number, given that no one knew anything about COVID-19 six months ago.
It is testament to the spirit of innovation and collaboration – the latter a word not often associated with the healthcare industry hitherto – that has been spawned by the pandemic.
On Thursday, April 23, the United Kingdom stepped up the effort by starting human trials on a coronavirus vaccine candidate, joining China and America at that advanced – but dangerous stage. The risks are fatal, but if it works the team of researchers, who have been working on the vaccine since January 10, will etch themselves into world history. And they are confident of success.
“The prospects are very good, but it is clearly not completely certain,” said Sarah Gilbert of the University of Oxford, one of the professors leading the project, on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “That’s why we have to do trials to find out.” She was speaking on Sunday, two days before the British Government confirmed it would provide £20 million to the university’s team and a further £22.5 million to Imperial College, where scientists are also working on a vaccine.
The Oxford University project, a collaboration between the university’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group, opened recruitment for the clinical trial – for healthy adults between 18 and 55 – at the end of March, having begun research on a vaccine against the coronavirus-borne disease COVID-19 in February. Some 510 will be tested by mid-May, moving to thousands of volunteers if successful.
PROCESS OF TRIAL AND ERROR AND TRIAL AGAIN
Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, praised both teams for making “rapid progress” and said reaching this stage in regular times would “take years”. He insisted the UK will throw “everything we’ve got” at developing a vaccine. Additionally, he stated that the Government would invest in manufacturing capabilities so that if either vaccine was successful, it could be available for British people “as soon as humanly possible”.
He said: “We are going to back them to the hilt and give them every resource that they need to get the best possible chance of success as soon as possible. The upside of being the first country in the world to develop a successful vaccine is so huge that I am throwing everything at it.” However, Mr Hancock admitted that vaccine development was a “process of trial and error and trial again”.
Professors Gilbert, Andrew Pollard, and Adrian Hill, who are leading the coronavirus vaccine tests, said in a statement: “The Oxford Covid vaccine team are delighted with Tuesday’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Health [about] funding for the evaluation of the new COVID19 vaccine … Although it seems like a very long time since the work started, in reality it is less than four months since we first heard of an outbreak of severe pneumonia cases, and began to plan a response.
“Our brilliant team has been working tirelessly to get to this point using our skills and experience in vaccine development and testing, and will do the best job possible in moving quickly while at all times prioritising the safety of the trial participants.”
NOW FOR THE SCIENCE
The vaccine combines a weakened version of a common cold virus with genetic coding that make proteins from the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) called spike glycoprotein, which plays an essential role in the infection pathway of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In simple terms, it targets the “club-shaped spike” on the outer coats of coronaviruses.
At the end of March, Prof Hill, director of Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, said: “The Oxford team had [an] exceptional experience of a rapid vaccine response, such as to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. This is an even greater challenge.
“Vaccines are being designed from scratch and progressed at an unprecedented rate. The upcoming trial will be critical for assessing the feasibility of vaccination against COVID-19 and could lead to early deployment.”
Also on Thursday, GlobalWebIndex published its eighth coronavirus report, highlighting the need for a safe vaccine as quickly as possible, not least for mental health. “Going down the list of concerns, those in the UK (30 per cent), females (27 per cent), and Gen Z (26 per cent) have the biggest fear of their mental health worsening,” the research suggests.
Over half (54 per cent) report that their mental health has worsened during the COVID-19 crisis. “When it comes to the key factors impacting online adults’ mental health for the worse,” the study continues, “it’s anxiety (43 per cent) and stress (42 per cent) that top the charts in both the UK and America.”
On Wednesday, the day before both the human trials began in Britain and the GlobalWebIndex research was published, Chris Whitty, the UK’s most senior medic, provided a stark assessment. Given that he said that social-distancing measures would likely continue until 2021 and that lockdown will not end soon, everyone – in Britain and around the world – will be hoping the trials are successful.