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Oxford Covid-19 vaccine gets $1bn boost from US government

But a scientist warns of ‘jumping the gun’ given there’s little evidence that vaccine works

AstraZeneca has received more than $1 billion from the US government to support the development and production of a Covid-19 vaccine at the University of Oxford.

The potential vaccine known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, is currently being developed by the Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group, with the first deliveries potentially starting in September.

The announcement on 21 May comes after the pharmaceutical giant partnered up with the University of Oxford on the global development and distribution of the potential vaccine.

The funding, from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, will help fund a phase-three clinical trial with 30,000 participants as well as a paediatric trial.

It follows two separate announcements by the UK government totalling £85.5m in support for the Oxford vaccine.

“We would like to thank the US and UK governments for their substantial support to accelerate the development and production of the vaccine,” said Pascal Soriot, chief executive officer of AstraZeneca. “We will do everything in our power to make this vaccine quickly and widely available.”

Scientists have cautiously welcomed the news. For example, Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, described it as an “important development particularly in planning for the equitable supply of the vaccine throughout the world”.

“It is, however, jumping the gun as we don’t know that this vaccine will work,” he cautioned. “Early studies using the Oxford vaccine in monkeys showed that while vaccination reduced the severity of disease preventing pneumonia it failed to stop the animals from becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2. This raises serious questions about the ability of this vaccine to protect against infection in humans and to prevent virus transmission.”

Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, added that the funding would be “important for wider distribution” and that it could help enable production of a second booster dose, which might be needed “as the recent performance data was not as good as hoped”.

“The vaccine is quite well advanced, but it is important to be clear that advanced or not, the performance of the vaccine in preventing disease and preferably infection per se is paramount,” he said, referring to recent data that suggested this vaccine doesn’t stop virus infecting the monkeys and then replicating inside the body. “A vaccine that still allows the virus to replicate risks the selection of breakthrough strains that could then evade vaccine protection.”