Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, scientists around the globe have been racing to develop a vaccine to combat the virus and allow life to return to normal. Here in the UK, trials are taking place at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London, but when exactly there will be a coronavirus vaccine available in the UK remains unclear. Here’s what we know so far.
Human trials of the UK’s first vaccine for COVID-19 began towards the end of April at the University of Oxford. According to the BBC, “two volunteers were injected, the first of more than 800 people recruited for the study.” Since then, more than 10,000 volunteers – including over more than70 children, aged between five and 12 – have been enrolled in the second phase of the trial.
On July 20 it was announced that the COVID-19 vaccine being developed at University of Oxford appears to be safe and "trains" the immune system. Those participating in the trials have been found to produce antibodies that can fight COVID-19, researchers say. So while it doesn't make you immune, it does make you more likely to be able to fight off the virus. Though a promising result, scientists have said larger trials still need to happen before the vaccine can be signed off.
The government has already signed a deal for 100 million doses of the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca at Oxford. This is on top of a further 90 million doses that the government has invested in which are being developed by pharmaceutical companies BioNtech and Pfizer. Separately, Valneva is developing another vaccine, too. The BBC has reported that the government has invested in all three as they use different approaches: Valneva's vaccine uses an “inactive version of coronavirus”; Oxford's a “genetically engineered virus”; BioNtech and Pfizer's version injects part of “coronavirus’ genetic code”.
Vaccines are still seen as the most likely way that people will be able to get "back to normal," but there’s no certainty as to whether any will work on a grand scale yet. Other places are still working on a vaccine too. On June 9, it was announced that a new round of human trials would begin at Imperial College London later that month, per the Evening Standard. The announcement revealed that the vaccine would be tested on 300 people, with a further trials planned for October that will include 6,000 people if the initial testing proves successful. On June 23, Imperial College reported that their first candidate had received a small dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and was now being monitored. On July 17 they announced that they’d be moving into their next round of trials after 15 volunteers had received doses. Next 105 participants aged 18-75 will be randomised to receive their first shot of one of three doses of the vaccine. It’s still unclear when results will be available.
In a joint signed letter, European leaders including Boris Johnson have pledged to raise £6.6 billion to find a vaccine for COVID-19. The UK has pledged to give £388m in aid funding for research into tests, treatments, and vaccines – part of a £744m commitment to help end the pandemic and support the global economy.
Some scientists have suggested “deliberately infecting” those volunteering in vaccine-testing projects, which the WHO “conditionally backed” in early May. Professor Robin Shattock at Imperial, for example, has suggested using pieces of raw genetic code which, when injected into the body, should start producing viral proteins, which the immune system can “learn to fight.”
As stated in WHO guidance regarding this approach, “it could be ethically justified despite the potential dangers for participants,” per the Guardian. Such trials have been used for other viruses, including malaria and the flu. However, some UK scientists “have reacted with horror” to this proposal, on the grounds that it could “cause serious illness and possibly deaths of volunteers” infected with COVID-19.
Elsewhere, on June 24, scientists in South Africa announced they will start their first COVID-19 vaccine trials. They’re collaborating with the University of Oxford and the Oxford Jenner Institute and the vaccine being used is the same one used in the UK.
China approved early-stage human tests for two experimental coronavirus vaccines back on April 14. As CGTN reported at the time, a senior official said a vaccine for emergency use could be ready by September. However the BBC reported that a mass-produced vaccine is unlikely until 2021.
Research teams in China reportedly account for “60% of vaccine candidates in human trials,” per The Sunday Times. One vaccine, developed by Chinese biotech firm CanSino Biologics and the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, is now firmly in its phase two trial. The results of the first phase were reported in The Lancet on May 22, which stated that “the [adenovirus five] Ad5 vectored COVID-19 vaccine was tolerable and immunogenic in healthy adults.” Adenoviruses, as explained by Live Science, are typically the cause of the common cold. The proposed vaccine “combines a weakened version of a common cold virus with genes coding for the coronavirus’ lethal weapons: its spikes.”
Sinovac Biotech has been developing a vaccine in China and Reuters reported that it will enter phase three of it’s trials later this month. China is currently behind eight of the 19 vaccine candidates in human trials.
Meanwhile, antibody tests began to be made available in England, primarily to NHS and care staff, from the end of May. There’s currently no indication as to when these antibody tests will be available to the public, although the Telegraph suggests that when they are, we could be able to pick them up for home testing via Amazon and Boots.