First human trials of COVID-19 RNA-based vaccine by Imperial researchers, now underway

The candidate was made using synthetic strands of genetic code (RNA) based on the virus’s genetic material.

Researchers are now in the midst of clinical (human) trials of a vaccine candidate developed by researchers at Imperial College London against the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. This will be the first time the vaccine is trialled in humans, and will reveal whether it is safe and effective in mounting an immune response against COVID-19.

It will also be the first time a novel technique in vaccine development – called self-amplifying RNA technology – is put to the test, allowing scientists to respond more quickly to emerging diseases in the future, a report by Imperial said. The vaccine candidate was reportedly developed and sent through to clinical trials after £41 million in funding from the British government and a further £5m in donations.

 First human trials of COVID-19 RNA-based vaccine by Imperial researchers, now underway

A vaccine candidate against COVID-19 (the SARS-CoV-2 virus), provided by Imperial College London. About a dozen vaccine candidates are in early stages of testing in thousands of people. Image: Imperial College London via AP

The vaccine passed a rigorous pre-clinical test in animal studies, where it found safe and produced encouraging signs of an effective immune response. In the clinical trials over the coming weeks, 300 healthy participants will be given two doses of the vaccine over two visits – an initial dose and then a second boosting dose four weeks later. This, in the hope that it can produce a safe immune response against the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their bodies. If it passes this first test, a larger trial (Phase III) is planned for later in the year with roughly 6000 healthy volunteers to test its effectiveness.

"In the long-term, a viable vaccine could be vital for protecting the most vulnerable, enabling restrictions to be eased and helping people to get back to normal life," Professor Robin Shattock from the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial, who is leading the vaccine development process, told Imperial press.

"From a scientific perspective, new technologies mean we have been able to get moving on a potential vaccine with unprecedented speed. We’ve been able to produce a vaccine from scratch and take it to human trials in just a few months – from code to candidate – which has never been done before with this type of vaccine," Shattock added.

The candidate was made using synthetic strands of the genetic code (called RNA), based on the virus’s genetic material. When this RNA is injected into muscle, where (there is always a whole lot of RNA processing in the works) it amplifies – making many copies of itself. This, in turn, sends a signal to the body’s own immune cells to make copies of a spiky protein found on the outside of the virus.

This, the researchers think, would prepare the immune system to respond to the coronavirus so the body can easily recognise it and defend itself against COVID-19 in the future.

The researchers expect to publish findings once the safety data are available, and are hopeful that a viable vaccine comes from the effort that is available by April 2021.

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