Oxford to begin human trials for coronavirus vaccine

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Researchers at the University of Oxford have started recruiting for a clinical trial of a new vaccine to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A collaboration between the University’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group clinical teams, the trial aims to determine “ the feasibility of vaccination against COVID-19 and could lead to early deployment” according to Professor Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute. 

The trial is set to recruit up to 510 volunteers aged between 18 and 55, who will receive the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine or a control injection for comparison. This particular vaccine was chosen as being most appropriate because “it can generate a strong immune response from one dose and it is not a replicating virus, so it cannot cause an ongoing infection in the vaccinated individual”.

The vaccine, a  ‘chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector’, is especially versatile, with vaccines of its kind “having been used safely in thousands of subjects, from 1 week to 90 years of age, in vaccines targeting over 10 different diseases”.

The Oxford team has been working on this vaccine since the 10th January and is headed up by Professors Sarah Gilbert, Andrew Pollard, Teresa Lambe,  Adrian Hill, and Dr Sandy Douglas.  The trial has been approved by UK regulators and ethical reviewers.

However, it will take some weeks still for the vaccine to be tested, as “preclinical work is being done and the vaccine is being manufactured to clinical-grade standard at the Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility at Oxford University”.

Professor Gilbert, who is the lead researcher of the vaccine development programme, has worked with her research team on “new approaches to vaccine development” ever since the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Equipped with a “much larger team” than before, Gilbert and her team in the past has developed a vaccine to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another human coronavirus disease, and this has been promising in its early clinical trials. This expertise is coupled with Dr Hill’s belief the team assembled has “exceptional experience of a rapid vaccine response” in what will come as a reassurance to the wider public.

The ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine seeks, in particular, to target the “club-shaped spikes” on the outer layer of the coronavirus. It produces the “surface spike protein of the coronavirus (…), which primes the immune system to attack the coronavirus if it later infects the body.”

Should the trial prove to be successful, planning is in place to scale up the manufacture of the vaccine. Dr Douglas, who is leading the manufacturing scale-up project, has said that “by starting work on large-scale manufacturing immediately, we hope to accelerate the availability of a high quality, safe vaccine.” This would then hopefully make vaccine doses available to NHS workers, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Amidst all the fast-paced work and considerable energy spent on developing the vaccine, Dr Lambe has praised the “commitment, compassion and helpfulness felt throughout the whole effort from everyone”.

This work has been funded by a variety of organisations, including UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).