Researchers begin trials of COVID-19 vaccine

In this file photo taken on February 10, 2020 Doctor Paul McKay, who is working on an vaccine for the 2019-nCoV strain of the novel coronavirus poses for a photograph using a pipette expresses coronavirus onto surface protein to apply cell cultures, in a research lab at Imperial College School of Medicine (ICSM) in London on February 10, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 23 May 2020

Researchers begin trials of COVID-19 vaccine

  • Oxford group could have 1 million doses ready by September if successful
  • The trial, now in its second phase following preliminary testing on a small sample size of 160 patients, will involve people of all age demographics

LONDON: A team of researchers has begun recruiting volunteers for clinical trials of a vaccine against COVID-19, while another team has started work on a treatment that may help critically ill patients recover from the disease.

Research at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, carried out in conjunction with an organization called the Oxford Vaccine Group, has been ongoing since January, with scientists now looking to recruit in excess of 10,000 people to take part in further trials following preliminary efforts in April.
The trial, now in its second phase following preliminary testing on a small sample size of 160 patients, will involve people of all age demographics — from children older than 5 years to the elderly — to help test the effectiveness of the vaccine, called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, in a wider variety of people.
The vaccine — which was developed using an altered virus that affects chimpanzees, combined with the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, SARS-CoV-2 — had positive effects in animal trials.
It will now be given to subjects alongside a licensed vaccine, MenACWY, which is used to combat meningitis and blood poisoning, which will serve as a “control comparison.”
It is one of only four major vaccine trials currently taking place worldwide, though over 100 experimental vaccines are known to be in development.
The head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, Prof. Andrew Pollard, said: “The clinical studies are progressing very well, and we are now initiating studies to evaluate how well the vaccine induces immune responses in older adults, and to test whether it can provide protection in the wider population.”
Preparation for mass production of the vaccine is already underway in anticipation of the trial proving successful.
The Oxford team has said it expects to have around a million units of the vaccine ready for use by September should that prove to be the case.
This week, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca said it had the capacity to make a billion doses of the Oxford vaccine, and had secured an agreement to produce at least 400 million doses.
Meanwhile, scientists working at King’s College, London, as well as the city’s Francis Crick Institute and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital, have started clinical trials of a drug called interleukin 7 to test its effects on combating COVID-19.
Interleukin 7 is known to boost a certain kind of human immune system cell, known as a T-cell, which is vital for clearing the body of infection.
A common theme among particularly serious cases of COVID-19 is a low T-cell count, though it is not yet known why. It is hoped that the introduction of the drug to patients suffering low counts may aid their recovery. The Crick Institute’s Prof. Adrian Hayday said: “They (the T-cells) are trying to protect us, but the virus seems to be doing something that’s pulling the rug from under them, because their numbers (in tested patients) have declined dramatically.”
The team believes that as well as boosting T-cell levels in critical patients, the findings of the trial may help develop a “fingerprint test” to check T-cell levels in the blood, which could help identify at an early stage patients at risk of developing more critical symptoms.
The team also hopes it will lead to the development of a treatment specifically aimed at reversing the effects of T-cell decline in COVID-19 patients.
“The virus that has caused this completely earth-changing emergency is unique — it’s different. It is something unprecedented,” said Hayday. “This virus is really doing something distinct, and future research — which we will start immediately — needs to find out the mechanism by which this virus is having these effects.”


Afghan govt. vows to probe civilian deaths in Kunduz airstrike

Updated 20 September 2020

Afghan govt. vows to probe civilian deaths in Kunduz airstrike

  • There have been conflicting reports from lawmakers and residents about number of fatalities
  • Taliban says none of its fighters killed in attack

KABUL: Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry pledged on Sunday to probe “allegations” of at least 12 civilians being killed in an airstrike targeting Taliban fighters in the northern Kunduz province a day earlier.
The pledge followed inconsistencies about the number of casualties, with the insurgent group saying that none of its men had died in the attack.
“The Taliban were the target, and 30 of them were killed. Initial reports indicate no harm was inflicted upon civilians, but we are probing reports by locals about civilian casualties. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces take allegations of civilian harm seriously, and these claims will be investigated,” Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the defense ministry in Kabul, told Arab News.
He added that the ministry would “share any details” about civilian casualties “once the probe is over.”
If confirmed, Saturday’s airstrike in the Khan Abad district, which lies nearly 350 km from Kabul and is mostly controlled by the Taliban, will be the latest in a series of air raids killing civilians in several parts of the country.
It follows a week after crucial intra-Afghan talks between the government and Taliban officials began in Doha, Qatar on Saturday, to end the protracted war and plan a roadmap for peace in Afghanistan.
There were conflicting accounts from civilians and lawmakers in the area about the incident, with two provincial council members, Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani and Sayed Yusuf, saying that at least 12 civilians had died in Saturday’s air raid.
“Since the area is under Taliban’s control, we have not been able to find out exactly how the civilians were killed,” Rabbani told Arab News.
Meanwhile, Nilofar Jalali, a legislator from Kunduz, offered another version of the attack, which she said “hit a residential area before sunrise when people were still in their bed.”
“Children and women are among the dead, and 18 civilians have also been wounded. I informed the defense minister about it; he said he will check and get back to me, but has not,” she told Arab News. However, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied the reports in a statement on Sunday, saying that “no fighter of the group was killed,” before placing the number of civilian deaths at 23.
Kunduz and other parts of the country have witnessed an escalation in attacks by both the government and the Taliban in recent weeks, despite their negotiators participating in the Qatar talks which are part of a US-facilitated process following 19 years of conflict in the country — Washington’s longest war in history.
The Qatar discussions are based on a historic accord signed between Washington and the Taliban in February this year which, among other things, paves the way for the complete withdrawal of US-led troops from the country by next spring, in return for a pledge from the Taliban not to allow use Afghanistan to harm any country’s, including US, interests.
Kabul’s negotiators in Qatar are pushing the Taliban to declare a cease-fire, while the Taliban say it can be included in the agenda and that both sides must first ascertain “the real cause” of the war.
Some analysts believe that while delegates of the parties are struggling to agree over the mechanism and agenda of the talks in Qatar, their fighters in Afghanistan are “focusing on military tactics to capture grounds” so that they can use it as a “bargaining chip” at the negotiation table.
“Both sides think that if they have more territory then they can argue their case from a position of strength during the talks and use it as leverage,” Shafiq Haqpal, an analyst and a former university teacher, told Arab News.
“The sides have not yet agreed on the mechanism of the talks despite the Qatar talks, which began on the 12th of September. So, this is an indication that things are not going the right way politically, and both sides are trying their luck on the battlefield here.”