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.”


Two accomplices in Kenya’s Westgate attack jailed for 33 and 18 years

Updated 30 October 2020

Two accomplices in Kenya’s Westgate attack jailed for 33 and 18 years

  • Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hassan Hussein Mustafa, both 31, were found guilty on October 7 of conspiring with and supporting the four assailants
  • The convicted men were in regular contact with the attackers who at midday on September 21, 2013, stormed the upscale Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital

NAIROBI: A Kenyan court Friday handed prison terms of 33 and 18 years respectively to two men accused of conspiring with the Al-Shabab extremists who attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013, killing 67 people.

Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hassan Hussein Mustafa, both 31, were found guilty on October 7 of conspiring with and supporting the four assailants from the Somalia-based extremist group who died in what was then Kenya’s worst terrorist attack in 15 years.

The accused asked the judge for leniency, saying they had already served seven years behind bars and had family to care for.

“Despite mitigation by their defense lawyers on their innocence, the offense committed was serious, devastating, destructive, that called for a punishment by the court,” Chief Magistrate Francis Andayi told a Nairobi courtroom.

He sentenced the men to 18 years for conspiracy and 18 for supporting extremists, but ordered they serve both terms together. Abdi was also given an additional 15 years for two counts of possessing extremist propaganda material on his laptop.

He will serve 26 years and Mustafa 11, taking into account their pre-trial detention.

The convicted men were in regular contact with the attackers who at midday on September 21, 2013, stormed the upscale Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital and began throwing grenades and firing indiscriminately on shoppers and business owners.

A four-day siege ensued — much of it broadcast live on television — during which Kenyan security forces tried to flush out the gunmen and take back the high-end retail complex.

Although there was no specific evidence Abdi and Mustafa had provided material help, the court was satisfied their communication with the attackers amounted to supporting the armed rampage, and justified the guilty verdict for conspiracy.

The marathon trial began in January 2014. A third accused was acquitted of all charges.
The Westgate attack was claimed by Al-Shabab in retaliation for Kenya intervening military over the border in Somalia, where the extremist group was waging a bloody insurgency against the fragile central government.

Kenya is a major contributor of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which in 2011 drove Al-Shabab out of Mogadishu and other urban strongholds after a months-long offensive.

In a car the attackers drove to Westgate, police found evidence of newly-activated SIM cards used by the gunmen. Their communications were traced, including calls to Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hassan Hussein Mustafa.

A fourth defendant, Adan Mohammed Abdikadir, was acquitted in early 2019 for lack of evidence.

The Westgate attack was the deadliest incident of violent extremism on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, which killed 213 people.

But since the assault on the shopping complex, Al-Shabab has perpetrated further atrocities in Kenya against civilian targets.

In April 2015, gunmen entered Garissa University and killed 148 people, almost all of them students. Many were shot point blank after being identified as Christians.

In January 2019, the militants struck Nairobi again, hitting the Dusit Hotel and surrounding offices and killing 21 people.

Al-Shabab warned in a January statement that Kenya “will never be safe” as long as its troops were stationed in Somalia, and threatened further attacks on tourists and US interests.

That same month, Al-Shabab attacked a US military base in northeast Kenya in a cross-border raid, killing three Americans and destroying a number of aircraft.