Human trials of a potential coronavirus vaccine developed at the University of Oxford are to begin tomorrow, the health secretary has announced.
And one member of the Oxford team said that if trials are successful, millions of doses of vaccine could be available for use by the autumn of this year, in a breakthrough which would potentially signal the start of the world’s slow emergence from an outbreak which has already claimed 175,000 lives and caused devastating economic damage.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government was “throwing everything” at the search for a vaccine and announced he was providing £20m to the Oxford team to help fund its clinical trials, with a further £22.5m going to researchers at Imperial College London.
Despite a normal development time of 18 months or more for a vaccine, the Oxford researchers led by Professor Sarah Gilbert believe large-scale production could be under way as early as September — about nine months after the novel virus was first spotted in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Mr Hancock said the government will now invest in manufacturing capability so that if either the Oxford or Imperial vaccine works safely, it will be made available to the UK public “as early as humanly possible”.
Setting out the possible timeframe for a successful vaccine to be made available to the public in the UK, and eventually around the world, a member of the Oxford team, Professor Andrew Pollard, told Sky News: “If you had a sailing wind and absolutely nothing goes wrong in all of that complex technical process and you have all the facilities available, you could have millions of doses by the autumn of this year. But to the very large scale, there’s a huge technical effort to get there and I think it’s unlikely that that could happen before the end of this year.”
He explained: “If the trials are successful there’s a big technical hurdle to upscale doses of the vaccine to the millions, tens of millions or even billions that would be needed for the world. It’s a very different manufacturing process to be able to make such large volumes of vaccine. The capacity to do that round the world is quite limited.”
Prof Pollard said the Oxford project had been given a headstart by work already done on the coronaviruses Sars and Mers following outbreaks in recent years. “When this new virus emerged there was already work going on in Oxford on Mers coronavirus and a vaccine was being trialled on humans,” he said.
“What happened was that the genetic code from the new coronavirus was discovered in January and it was possible to go back to that genetic code and make these new vaccines very rapidly. They’ve been developed in the laboratory and taken to a manufacturing facility in Oxford to make the first doses ready for trials.”
Prof Pollard made clear that the Oxford trial was not guaranteed to produce a successful vaccine, saying: “We have to do the clinical trials in order to work out how well the vaccines work and also how long the protection from the vaccines might last — if indeed it does protect.”
Imperial’s professor of global health David Nabarro, an envoy on Covid-19 for the World Health Organisation, has warned that it may never be possible to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the disease, and that humanity may have to “find ways to go about our lives with this virus as a constant threat”.
Mr Hancock cautioned: “Nothing about this process is certain. Vaccine development is a matter of trial and error and trial again. That’s the nature of how vaccines are developed.”
He said he had told Professor Gilbert and Imperial’s Professor Robin Shattock that the government will “back them to the hilt and give them every resource they need to give them the best possible chance of success as soon as possible”.
The health secretary made clear that he believes the UK stands to reap a gigantic economic windfall if it is the first to reach the holy grail of a vaccine which could protect the whole world against Covid-19. “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.
“In the long run the best way to defeat coronavirus is through a vaccine. This is a new disease, this is uncertain science, but I’m certain that we will throw everything we’ve got at developing a vaccine. The UK is at the forefront of the global effort. We’ve put more money than any other country into the global search for a vaccine. And for all the efforts around the world, two of the leading vaccine developments are taking place here.”
Mr Hancock cautioned that hopes of a breakthrough on a vaccine should not tempt people to become complacent in social-distancing measures. He said: “Coronavirus is a powerful enemy. But I believe that the power of human ingenuity is stronger. Every day the science gets better, we gather more information, we understand more about how to defeat the illness. But in the meantime there’s one thing we can do — and that is stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”
Meanwhile, England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said yesterday that new case numbers “remain high and it isn’t clear that there’s an enormous downturn at this point”.
He said the country remains “in a situation of danger that we must take very seriously indeed”.
While hospital admissions had peaked in London on around April 10 “and since then there has been a decline”, the picture in Scotland, Wales and other regions in England showed “more of a plateau rater than anything else”.
Prof Van-Tam said it was not “absolutely clear” there had been peaks or that cases were dropping in these areas, adding: “It shows that we are not out of danger at this point, and that the curve is flat but not very clearly going down in many parts of the country.”