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Tens of millions pledged for Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine

Seven firms in Europe and Asia helping as vaccine prepares to enter trials

A team developing one of the UK’s leading Covid-19 vaccine projects has been promised £20 million in government support, just days after its head said he had secured “tens of millions” of pounds already for the effort.

On 21 April, health secretary Matt Hancock said £20m of government money would go to the Oxford vaccine effort, with human trials set to start in days.

“We think this vaccine has as good a chance, maybe a better chance than any of the others, and there are lots around,” Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, told journalists ahead of the government pledge.

He added that seven companies around the world were already partnering on manufacturing, and could potentially produce hundreds of millions of doses by the end of the year, and tens of millions of pounds in support had already been secured.

“It’s really important that we start that vaccine scale-up early,” Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher of the vaccine development programme at the university, told a briefing organised by the Science Media Centre on 17 April. “We want to be able to have plans in place so that there are companies who can manufacture this vaccine and that there will be doses ready to use.”

The team’s vaccine is based on an adenovirus, which they have removed some genes from and then added in genes from the Covid-19 vaccine which they hope will trigger an immune response in humans.

The technology—developed at the university—makes it relatively efficient to manufacture at scale and cheaply, say the team.

They have already used the system to make vaccines against other infections such as Lassa fever and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, with around a dozen trials already conducted on some 6,000 people globally, meaning both they and regulators overseeing them are familiar with it.

“That allows us to move faster when we need to,” said Gilbert.

The team has speeded up a process that would normally take several years, according to Andrew Pollard, chief investigator on the study, who says that around 200 people are working on setting up the trials.

“In the context of social distancing, this is a huge logistical challenge to manage this large number of people required to get this project underway,” he says. “So, we have many people working from home and also many others who are working in the centre spaced two metres apart in order to be able to manage the flow of volunteers who are also spaced two metres apart in the building.”

Where the vaccine doses ultimately end up will partly depend on who funded them.

“No one country…is likely to be able to supply the entire world,” says Hill. “The world is going to need hundreds of millions of doses, ideally, by the end of this year to end this pandemic to let us out of lockdown and ensure we can do that safely.”