UK’s COVID-19 study aims to vaccinate more than 10,000

Last month, scientists at Oxford University began immunizing more than 1,000 volunteers with their vaccine candidate in a preliminary trial. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 22 May 2020

UK’s COVID-19 study aims to vaccinate more than 10,000

  • Last month, scientists at Oxford University began immunizing more than 1,000 volunteers with their vaccine candidate in a preliminary trial

LONDON: British researchers testing an experimental vaccine against the new coronavirus are moving into advanced studies and aim to immunize more than 10,000 people to determine if the shot works.
Last month, scientists at Oxford University began immunizing more than 1,000 volunteers with their vaccine candidate in a preliminary trial designed to test the shot’s safety. On Friday, the scientists announced they now aim to vaccinate 10,260 people across Britain, including older people and children.
If all goes smoothly, the scientists predicted there might be enough positive data about the vaccine’s effectiveness to move forward with mass production relatively soon.
“If the vaccine is shown to work in the months ahead and it’s possible that if there’s enough transmission, that could happen in a relatively short period of time,” said Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford Vaccine Group. “It’s possible as early as the autumn or toward the end of the year, you could have results that allowed use of the vaccine on a wider scale.”
But Pollard acknowledged there were still many challenges ahead, including how long it will take to prove the vaccine works, particularly since transmission has dropped significantly in Britain, in addition to any potential manufacturing complications.
He was unable to provide any initial data from the earlier trial, explaining that the trial was designed to be blinded, meaning the researchers don’t know which volunteers have received the experimental vaccine; those results are shared with a safety and monitoring oversight board. So far, there have not been any indications of worrying side effects.
When the vaccine was tested in monkeys, researchers found it protected them against pneumonia, suggesting that it could help to prevent severe disease in people, Pollard said. He said it was still an open question whether it could make a dent in how the disease is spread between people.
Earlier this week, drugmaker AstraZeneca said it had secured its first agreements for 400 million doses of the Oxford-developed vaccine, bolstered by a $1 billion investment from a US government agency, for the development, production and delivery of the vaccine, starting in the fall.
Other experts welcomed the AstraZeneca investment, but noted there was still no proof the Oxford-developed vaccine would ultimately succeed.
About a dozen different experimental vaccines are in early stages of human testing or poised to start, mostly in China, the US and Europe, with dozens more in earlier stages of development.
Scientists have never created vaccines from scratch this fast and it’s far from clear that any of the candidates will ultimately prove safe and effective. Often, possible vaccines that look promising early fail after testing expands to thousands of people — one reason the crowded field is important. Many of the candidates work in different ways, and are made with different technologies, increasing the odds that at least one approach might succeed.
Most of the vaccines in the pipeline aim to train the immune system to recognize the spiky protein that studs the new coronavirus’ outer surface, so it’s primed to attack if the real infection comes along. The Oxford vaccine uses a harmless virus — a chimpanzee cold virus, engineered so it can’t spread — to carry the spike protein into the body. A Chinese company created a similar shot.
Other leading vaccine candidates, including one from the US National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc. and another by Inovio Pharmaceuticals, simply inject a piece of the coronavirus genetic code that instructs the body itself to produce spike protein that primes the immune system.


Elon Musk wants YOU to build a brain-computer interface

Updated 29 August 2020

Elon Musk wants YOU to build a brain-computer interface

  • Musk fears artificial intelligence might one day pose dangers to the human race
  • His proposed solution: Link computers to human brains so we can keep up

Elon Musk isn't content with electric cars, shooting people into orbit, populating Mars and building underground tunnels to solve traffic problems. He also wants to get inside your brain.
His startup, Neuralink, wants to one day implant computer chips inside the human brain. The goal is to develop implants that can treat neural disorders — and that may one day be powerful enough to put humanity on a more even footing with possible future superintelligent computers.
Not that it's anywhere close to that yet.
In a video demonstration Friday explicitly aimed at recruiting new employees, Musk showed off a prototype of the device. About the size of a large coin, it's designed to be implanted in a person's skull. Ultra-thin wires hanging from the device would go directly into the brain. An earlier version of the device would have been placed behind an ear like a hearing aid.
But the startup is far from a having commercial product, which would involve complex human trials and FDA approval among many other things. Friday's demonstration featured three pigs. One, named Gertrude, had a Neuralink implant.

This video grab made from the online Neuralink livestream shows the Neuralink disk implant held by Elon Musk during the presentation on August 28, 2020. (AFP PHOTO / NEURALINK)

Musk, a founder of both the electric car company Tesla Motors and the private space-exploration firm SpaceX, has become an outspoken doomsayer about the threat artificial intelligence might one day pose to the human race. Continued growth in AI cognitive capabilities, he and like-minded critics suggest, could lead to machines that can outthink and outmaneuver humans with whom they might have little in common. The proposed solution? Link computers to our brains so we can keep up.
Musk urged coders, engineers and especially people with experience having “shipped” (that is, actually created) a product to apply. “You don't need to have brain experience," he said, adding that this is something that can be learned on the job.
Hooking a brain up directly to electronics is not new. Doctors implant electrodes in brains to deliver stimulation for treating such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and chronic pain. In experiments, implanted sensors have let paralyzed people use brain signals to operate computers and move robotic arms. In 2016, researchers reported that a man regained some movement in his own hand with a brain implant.
But Musk’s proposal goes beyond this. Neuralink wants to build on those existing medical treatments as well as one day work on surgeries that could improve cognitive functioning, according to a Wall Street Journal article on the company's launch.
While there are endless, outlandish applications to brain-computer interfaces — gaming, or as someone on Twitter asked Musk, summoning your Tesla — Neuralink wants to first use the device with people who have severe spinal cord injury to help them talk, type and move using their brain waves.
“I am confident that long term it would be possible to restore someone's full-body motion," said Musk, who's also famously said that he wants to “die on Mars, just not on impact."
Neuralink is not the only company working on artificial intelligence for the brain. Entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who sold his previous payments startup Braintree to PayPal for $800 million, started Kernel, a company working on “advanced neural interfaces” to treat disease and extend cognition, in 2016. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is also interested in the space. Facebook bought CTRL-labs, a startup developing non-invasive neural interfaces, in 2019 and folded it into Facebook's Reality Labs, whose goal is to “fundamentally transform the way we interact with devices."
That might be an easier sell than the Neuralink device, which would require recipients to agree to have the device implanted in their brain, possibly by a robot surgeon. Neuralink did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.