The vaccine has been licensed to AstraZeneca and is in its Phase III of its human trials in the UK.
Oxford University, experts think, is the most likely to come up with a viable vaccine candidate for COVID-19, which has caused havoc around the world. Even the World Health Organisation has pegged them as the leading candidate for a viable vaccine.
In a recent online call with the Ministers of Parliament of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Dr Sarah Gilbert, the lead researcher for Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine and Professor of Vaccinology at the Jenner Institute & Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, spoke about the ongoing trial.
The coronavirus is a family of viruses and SARS-CoV-2, like SARS and MERS, is part of this one big family, identified in the mid-1960s. Coronaviruses are known to have symptoms like fever, sore throat, headaches, cough, runny nose, etc and are also very common. People who have been infected are thought to be susceptible to getting infected again. This is a major cause for concern with a potential COVID-19 vaccine.
In order to dispel concerns about re-infections, Gilbert said that the Oxford vaccine should be able to provide ‘a good duration of immunity’ and she is optimistic about it. She also said a vaccine might provide better results than natural immunity acquired when individuals recover from the virus.
“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,” said Gilbert.
“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 will see a good duration of immunity, for several years at least, and probably better than naturally-acquired immunity.”
The vaccine, which has been given the name AZD1222, is licensed to British biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which will be manufacturing it if trials succeed. The vaccine is currently in Phase III human trials, in which the vaccine is being administered to around 8,000 participants. The trial will assess how the vaccine works in a large number of people over the age of 18, and whether the vaccine works to prevent people from becoming infected with COVID-19.
Gilbert said, “We’re very happy that we’re seeing the right sort of immune response that will give protection, and not the wrong sort.”
Oxford University is also slated to conduct human trials in Brazil with 5,000 individuals, in the US with 30,000 participants and another 2,000 in South Africa.
When asked how long will it be till a vaccine is available, Gilbert said she is confident human trials will be completed by the year-end, by which time AstraZeneca plans to manufacture millions of doses in anticipation of approval.
However, Kate Bingham, chair of the UK Government Vaccine Taskforce, said that, excluding the Oxford vaccine program that is on track to be completed by August this year, she hopes for a breakthrough in other COVID-19 trials by early 2021.
“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, or lessens its effects.”
Oxford University Regius Professor of Medicine Sir John Bell also echoed similar thoughts as Bingham when he said, “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.”