UK scientists give mixed update on COVID-19 vaccine progress

Prince William during a visit to the laboratory where a COVID-19 vaccine has been produced at the Oxford Vaccine Group’s facility at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, June 24, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 02 July 2020

UK scientists give mixed update on COVID-19 vaccine progress

  • Oxford professor confident of producing one that can protect body for years
  • Fears grow that initial projects may only weaken disease, not prevent it

LONDON: Leading British scientists have given a mixed update on progress toward developing a COVID-19 vaccine to the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee.

Prof. Sarah Gilbert, of the Oxford University team developing an inoculation in partnership with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, said she is confident human trials will be completed by the autumn, by which time AstraZeneca plans to have already manufactured millions of doses in anticipation of approval.

That optimism, though, was tempered by the head of the UK’s vaccine task force, Kate Bingham, who warned that any vaccine successfully developed may not be available until 2021, and that even then, may only be able to weaken the virus rather than stop it entirely.

The vaccine currently in development at Oxford is considered one of the world’s most promising prospects for a solution to COVID-19.

Around 8,000 people in the UK are currently taking part in advanced human trials for the vaccine, and the Oxford team plans to expand testing to 4,000 people in Brazil and 2,000 in South Africa. AstraZeneca plans to launch an ambitious trial of 30,000 people in the US.

Gilbert told the committee that she is confident that her team’s efforts will prove successful, and that once developed, a vaccine might be able to offer what protection it could in the body for several years before needing to be boosted with another injection.

“Vaccines have a different way of engaging with the immune system, and we follow people in our studies using the same type of technology to make the vaccines for several years, and we still see strong immune responses,” she said.

“It’s something we have to test and follow over time — we can’t know until we actually have the data — but we’re optimistic based on earlier studies that we’ll see a good duration of immunity, for several years at least, and probably better than naturally acquired immunity.”

Bingham, though, warned that even if the Oxford team is successful, any vaccine might not help prevent COVID-19 but merely lessen its effects.

“We don’t know coronavirus well. Think of examples like HIV and malaria. We know those diseases well, yet we don’t have vaccines against them,” she told the committee.

“So we may never get a vaccine, or we may only get a vaccine that modifies the severity of the disease.”

Adding that she remains cautious about the development timeframe, Gingham said: “I’m relatively optimistic we’ll have a vaccine, but in the near term we may just have to satisfy ourselves with a vaccine that reduces the severity of the disease.”

Her fears were echoed by Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, who told the committee: “This whole epidemic has relied too heavily on assumptions that have turned out not to be true. So my strong advice is to be prepared for the worst.”

There are currently 170 projects to develop a COVID-19 vaccine worldwide, with the Oxford team sharing data and government funding with a rival team at Imperial College, London.

But Sir John said despite all the efforts being made to develop a vaccine, he fears that a bad flu outbreak in the autumn, before Bingham believes a vaccine could be ready, will cause massive issues in terms of diagnostics.

“There are these reports coming out of China about a new flu strain, which is a swine flu strain, which always worry you,” he added.

“Whatever happens is likely to happen through the autumn, getting into the winter, and we’ll have a whole new set of other respiratory viruses floating around, and if we happen to have a bad flu season, it will cause lots of trouble. We need to be on the front foot.” 


Civilians, soldiers clash leaving 127 dead in South Sudan

Updated 12 August 2020

Civilians, soldiers clash leaving 127 dead in South Sudan

  • The violence in Tonj began after several armed youths got into a disagreement with soldiers
  • An initial armed confrontation was brought under control, but local youths subsequently mobilized for an attack on the army position

JUBA: Clashes between soldiers and civilians during a disarmament exercise in the central South Sudanese town of Tonj have left 127 dead, the army spokesman said Wednesday.
Major General Lul Ruai Koang told AFP that the fighting erupted on Saturday as security forces carried out an operation to disarm civilians in the area which has seen deadly inter-communal clashes.
More than six years after a civil war broke out in the country, and in the absence of a functioning government, many communities are flush with weapons, which they keep for protection or defense against cattle raids.
The violence in Tonj began after several armed youths got into a disagreement with soldiers. An initial armed confrontation was brought under control, but according to Koang the youths mobilized others for an attack on the army position.
“On the latest, the number of those killed, I can confirm to you that it rose to 127,” Koang said, adding that 45 of those killed were security forces and 82 were youths from the area.
A further 32 soldiers were injured.
Koang said two military officers involved in “triggering the clashes” had been arrested, and that the situation in Tonj had calmed down.
South Sudan is emerging from a six-year civil war that left 380,000 dead and millions displaced, and disarmament is a major stumbling block.
Experts have warned against operations that coerce people to lay down their guns without proper planning, as some communities could find themselves unable to protect themselves after their weapons are removed.
“The clashes should be an opportunity to rethink the approach to disarmament. What is the point of removing guns without addressing what drives folks to arms themselves?” Geoffrey Duke, head of the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms, said on Twitter.
“We can take guns away this week & they buy a new one next week (as) long as they still see the need to have (one).”