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Covid-19 vaccines get funding boost

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First UK human trial and £42.5m in government funding provide tailwinds for ultimate exit strategy

The government has pledged £22.5 million for a coronavirus vaccine project at Imperial College London, and £20m for work at the University of Oxford, as it puts a vaccine at the heart of plans to restart the country. At the same time, business secretary Alok Sharma announced on 17 April that chief scientist Patrick Vallance would lead a taskforce to drive efforts to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. 

The taskforce has been asked to channel support to research institutions working on Covid-19 and review regulations to speed up manufacturing of any vaccine discovered. Such manufacturing may take place at the country’s first national vaccine manufacturing facility at the Harwell campus in Oxfordshire, where construction work began on 21 April.

It is hoped the £65m, 7,000-square-metre Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre will open its doors in 2021—ahead of the pre-outbreak scheduled date of 2022.

“We are doing all we can to fast-track the build,” said Matthew Duchars, chief executive of the centre. He added that VMIC scientists were working “round the clock” with the University of Oxford, advising on manufacturing options for the institution’s candidate vaccine, which is now in human trials.

Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford that is working on the vaccine, said that in addition to working with VMIC, his researchers are partnering up with seven companies globally to help prepare for manufacturing. “Best-case scenario, I guess you might have hundreds of millions [of doses] by the end of the year,” said Hill. 

Angus Horner, director at Harwell Campus, said: “Early delivery of VMIC will give UK sovereign resilience and a new base from where we can support other countries in the global battle against Covid-19, plus prepare to meet future threats.”

Other UK vaccine efforts are also in the works. 

A startup based at the Unit DX Incubator in Bristol, Imophoron, hopes to test candidates in pre-clinical studies “within weeks”. And pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is partnering up with Sanofi to jointly develop a vaccine for the disease, using technology from both companies. Their candidate vaccine is expected to enter clinical trials in the second half of 2020.

But despite the government, firms and researchers all betting big on vaccines, ministers and scientific advisers have increasingly struck a cautious note. 

“We should be under no illusions,” said Sharma. “Producing a vaccine is a colossal undertaking – a complex process that will take many months. There are no guarantees.” 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight