Oxford University kicks off coronavirus vaccine trials: First 2 volunteers injected as scientists express 'high degree of confidence'

The Oxford vaccine project is headed by professor Sarah Gilbert and other immunity and human genetics scientists who started work on designing a coronavirus vaccine in January.

FP Staff April 24, 2020 17:33:35 IST
Oxford University kicks off coronavirus vaccine trials: First 2 volunteers injected as scientists express 'high degree of confidence'

Human trials of an eagerly-awaited vaccine, developed by the Oxford University, for the novel coronavirus began in the UK on Thursday with the first two volunteers being injected.

The Oxford vaccine project is headed by Professor Sarah Gilbert and other immunity and human genetics scientists who started work on designing a coronavirus vaccine in January.

Oxford University kicks off coronavirus vaccine trials First 2 volunteers injected as scientists express high degree of confidence

Microbiologist Elisa Granato, being injected as part of the first human trials in the UK for a potential coronavirus vaccine, undertaken by Oxford University. AP

The vaccine being trialled is made from a harmless chimpanzee virus that has been genetically engineered to carry part of the coronavirus to be tested on volunteers aged between 18 and 55 who are in good health.

Volunteers in the UK are being offered £625 (~Rs 58,700) to take part in the landmark research, with a target of 500 to be enrolled by the middle of next month. Scientists have given the vaccine an 80 percent chance of success.

Researchers created the new vaccine by inserting genes for a spiky protein that studs the outer surface of the new coronavirus into another, harmless virus.  The idea: The immune system will spot the foreign protein and make antibodies to fight it, primed to react quickly if the person eventually is exposed to COVID-19.

Microbiologist Elisa Granato, one of the two volunteers, speaking to the BBC, said: "I'm a scientist, so I wanted to try to support the scientific process wherever I can." As per the BBC report, half the volunteers will receive the coronavirus vaccine and the others a control vaccine that protects against meningitis but not the coronavirus.

"Personally I have a high degree of confidence in this vaccine," professor Gilbert told the BBC. "Of course, we have to test it and get data from humans. We have to demonstrate it actually works and stops people getting infected with coronavirus before using the vaccine in the wider population," she added.

The Oxford team previously developed a MERS vaccine — another type of coronavirus — using the same approach, which delivered promising results in clinical trials, as per the BBC report.

These kinds of studies often give volunteers either the real vaccine or a dummy shot. But this experimental vaccine may briefly cause soreness and maybe a low fever — meaning if a dummy shot was the comparison, the participants might figure out who got the real thing, said Dr Andrew Pollard, one of the Oxford chief researchers.

“That might influence people’s behaviour, perhaps make them more likely to be exposed to the virus,” which in turn would make it harder to prove if the vaccine worked, Pollard told The Associated Press.

So the Oxford team decided half the volunteers will be given an old vaccine against another disease that offers no COVID-19 protection but has similar shot side effects.

“It seems like the right thing to do — to ensure that we can combat this disease and get over it a lot faster," volunteer Edward O’Neill told the BBC afterward.

'Ray of hope'

As per a report in India Todayafter the first phase of trials on healthy adults is concluded and the safety of a potential vaccine ascertained, the trial will be expanded to included elder people, including those from the Black and Asian minority ethnic groups, including Indians.

Dr Kailash Chand, honourary vice president of the British Medical Association told India Today this trial is a "ray of hope," but said it was crucial for it to include ethnic communities as the Black and Asia communities had higher mortality rates from COVID 19, that they have different immune systems and are likely to have a different response to the vaccine.

The UK government has pledged £20 million to support the "ChAdOx1 nCoV-19" coronavirus vaccine trial programme, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying the government would "throw everything at" finding a vaccine against the deadly virus. "After all, 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," he said.

"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," the team said in a statement. "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 whilst at all times prioritising the safety of the trial participants," the statement added.

The trial for ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 will be carried out through a collaboration between the Oxford Vaccine Group's clinical teams and the University of Oxford's Jenner Institute. The time it would require to determine if the vaccine is effective would be "heavily dependent" on how much virus transmission there is in the community – initially focussed on trial areas of Oxford and Southampton.

If there's very low virus transmission among the volunteers that are vaccinated, the would have to wait a long time to get the result, explains Professor Gilbert. Therefore, the healthcare workers in hospitals, most likely to have been exposed to COVID-19, will be among the focus groups.

Meanwhile, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine manufacture is already being scaled up in preparation for larger trials. "We really don't want to find ourselves in a situation where the vaccine can show it's safe, it gives strong immune responses and it protects people, but we haven't got any doses to vaccinate anyone else with," Gilbert said.

The optimistic time-frame being looked at for around a million doses is by September. Deals have been done with the UK and overseas manufacturers to make the vaccine at scale, should it prove effective. Finding a vaccine that works against COVID-19 is a race against time as it is the only secure option for governments to ease the severe lockdown measures in place around the world to curb the rapid spread of the pandemic

With input from agencies

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