As early as 2018, The World Health Organisation added a “Disease X” to its list of viral threats that could cause a global pandemic. “Disease X” would sit alongside other highly contagious infections such as SARS and Ebola as a placeholder for an unknown human pathogen. In late 2019 this disease finally emerged: COVID-19.
Since the outbreak started the worldwide death toll has passed 287,000 with the number of confirmed cases at more than 4.2 million*. Without a vaccine, it’s difficult to see how a continuing rise in these numbers can be stopped.
(* Source: New Scientist, 12/05/20)
Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and the Oxford Vaccine Group, renowned for their research and technology associated with infectious diseases, have been at the global forefront of the charge to develop and mass-produce a vaccine for COVID-19. They need to undertake three key tasks before they achieve their goal.
1. A viable vaccine candidate for COVID-19 needs to be developed.
2. A clinical trial on a large scale is required to prove the effectiveness of the vaccine.
3. A process to bring it to market through volume manufacture is required to ensure that the vaccine can be widely available.
Ahead of the Game
Oxford has a competitive advantage in this field. In 2019, they developed the underlying technology ChAdOx1, which is also being used to successfully develop vaccines for a number of other respiratory diseases including MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) - also caused by a coronavirus.
Led by Sarah Gilbert, the team at Oxford had decided to act early this year following the release of information about a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan to see if they could develop a vaccine that could be used to treat “Disease X” based on this technology.
Within the month, and following the release of the full genome sequence of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, the team had already started to make great strides. It is now only three months later, but this head start has meant that human trials are already underway.
An injection of UK government money has meant that at the end of April, trials with over 500 carefully selected volunteers began at a number of clinics in the UK, all using the vaccine developed by the team from Oxford.
Should these trials prove successful with the vaccine being shown to be effective against COVID-19 and not causing unacceptable side effects, then stage 2 trials will be undertaken with a further group of participants. The first results will likely be available within the next two months – much faster than many of the “competition”.
Successful trials are one thing; having the ability to mass-produce a vaccine is quite another. To ensure this, the team in Oxford has recently announced a landmark collaborative agreement with AstraZeneca, drawing upon the core competences of the University’s expertise in vaccinology and AstraZeneca’s manufacturing and distribution capabilities. This will ensure that the vaccine can be swiftly and effectively brought to market globally to combat one of the first truly global pandemics since Spanish Flu.
The world holds its breath
I applaud the team in Oxford for their tireless work to find the vaccine for COVID-19. I have to declare an interest, though, and say I am obviously biased towards a team with whom I have links via my contacts in the biotech industry in this part of the country!
But, at the end of the day, this is not a race to come first with a competitive glint in your eye. This is a race to protect the large numbers of people around the world who are vulnerable to COVID-19, and whether it is Oxford University or another team, the sooner it happens, the safer we will all be.