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Research raises Covid-19 vaccine hopes

Universities and companies racing to test candidates to halt spread of coronavirus

As the UK reviews its coronavirus lockdown, hopes are growing for work still being undertaken in the search for a vaccine at universities that have largely been shuttered by the outbreak.

Around the world there are now more than 100 Covid-19 vaccines in development according to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

UK contenders are being worked on at universities in Oxford and London, as well as by companies including Bristol’s Imophoron, a bio-tech subsidiary of British American Tobacco and global pharma-giant GSK.

At the Jenner Institute in Oxford, their potential vaccine is already recruiting for human trials, while most other UK projects are still in pre-clinical stages.

Influenza specialist Sarah Gilbert’s team at the Jenner has made a recombinant vaccine by taking a virus that is harmless to humans, the chimpanzee adenovirus, and inserting into it a gene from the coronavirus. They are now recruiting volunteers for a phase-one trial.

“The Oxford vaccine group are among the most advanced viral vaccine groups in the world and have been working on vaccine bio-preparedness for several years,” said Brendan Wren, a professor of microbial pathogenesis at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “This means that they can test and evaluate Covid-19 vaccine candidates rapidly.”

While success is not guaranteed, researchers are already pushing the government to build up manufacturing capacity.

“The commitment by government to ensure that the vaccine is being produced ahead of the final results of clinical trials will be critical to an early roll-out of the vaccine in the UK,” said Colin Butter, associate professor at the University of Lincoln.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean there will be enough doses for everyone to be vaccinated immediately but with luck and commitment this may be possible earlier than the oft-quoted 18-month-plus timetable.”

The UK’s research councils are already funding work by Sandy Douglas at Oxford to investigate rapid scaling up of vaccine production, and the Jenner team also has the support of the UK’s dedicated Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Oxford.

“Our team is working around the clock to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to support scale-up and manufacture of the vaccine, in the shortest possible time frame,” Matthew Duchars, the innovation centre’s CEO said on 9 April. 

But the government may end up needing to go beyond its borders to scale up production.

“The UK has no current vaccine manufacture and may be at the back of the queue if we depend on other countries that have manufacturing capacity such as Germany, Belgium and France,” said Wren.

Ian Jones, professor of virology at the University of Reading, agrees.

“Any final roll-out will almost certainly need a level of manufacturing the country does not readily have so transfer to, and liaison with, an external manufacturer may also need to be tackled,” he said.