UK scientists give mixed update on COVID-19 vaccine progress

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

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.”