Drugs that treat coronavirus are ‘essential’ to getting a grip on the pandemic because a vaccine will take years to roll out, a top expert has warned.
Dr Nick Cammack, head of the Wellcome Trust’s Covid-19 Therapeutic Accelerator project into promising therapies, urged caution to those pinning their hopes on a jab being mass-produced this year.
He said it would take several years to scale up manufacturing capacity, even if a vaccine is developed and proven safe in 2020.
Dr Cammack emphasised the importance of an effective treatment for potential second and third waves of the epidemic in winter, after countries come out of lockdown and air travel restarts.
His comments come after hopes for a vaccine were ramped up in recent weeks following promises by several pharmaceutical giants to deliver jabs by autumn.
British firm AstraZeneca said it fully expected to have millions of doses of its AZD1222 vaccine, being developed by Oxford University, ready by September.
Brentford-based GlaxoSmithKline and US drugs giants Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer also unveiled plans to roll out their jabs later this year.
But Dr Cammack described it as an ‘extraordinary undertaking’ and said most people will not get their hands on a vaccine for ‘several years’.
Dr Nick Cammack, who is spearheading UK research into Covid-19 therapies, urged caution to those pinning their hopes on a jab being mass-produced this year, warning it’ll be several years before a jab is mass-produced
At the start of the crisis, there was hope that existing medicines could be repurposed to treat the coronavirus – because vaccines take so long to develop.
But when several of the most promising drugs – including the Donald Trump-touted malaria pill hydroxychloroquine – stumbled, attention turned to a vaccine.
Blow for coronavirus treatment hopes as Oxford University scientist behind huge UK trial warns it’s ‘extraordinarily unlikely’ one drug will be effective on its own
There is unlikely to be ‘one big winner’ from the world’s biggest coronavirus trial of promising drugs, according to an expert behind the study.
The Oxford University scientist running the Recovery trial said there was an ‘extraordinarily’ low chance of one of the five medicines being effective on its own.
Professor Martin Landray, deputy chief investigator of the Recovery trial
Martin Landray, professor of epidemiology at the prestigious university, claimed it’s more likely a combination of several drugs will have ‘modest effect’ on patients.
In a best case scenario a combination of drugs will be able to reduce the chance of dying from COVID-19 by a fifth, according to Professor Landray.
While this does not sound like much, it has the potential to save thousands of lives in the future because the virus will be here ‘forever’, he said.
Optimism about a potential vaccine was then ramped up when AstraZeneca promised its jab would be ready for Britons by September.
Dr Cammack, the Covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator lead at the Wellcome Trust, a research-charity based in London, dashed vaccine hopes at a virtual press conference today.
He said that ‘even if a vaccine comes by the end of the year’, it would take ‘a number of years’ to roll that vaccine out around the world. He described it as an ‘extraordinary undertaking that will take years to do’.
Estimates suggests the world will need around 4.5billion vaccine doses to put an end to the pandemic.
Dr Cammack reiterated the importance of finding an effective Covid treatment before this winter, when there could be a resurgence of the virus.
He added: ‘Let’s not forget there is little movement globally and as the world comes out of lockdown and air travel starts up big time, let’s see what happens. We may be seeing second and third waves in autumn and winter.’
The Covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator project is a global effort, funded by Bill Gates, assessing the most effective treatments for the incurable disease.
It is one of two major trials being ran in the UK, along with the Oxford Univeristy-led Recovery trial.
More than 11,000 patients aged between just one and 109 are taking part in the Recovery trial at 175 hospitals in Britain.
Participants are being given the HIV drug lopinavir/ritonavir, marketed as Kaletra and Aluvia; hydroxychloroquine, a malaria medication sold as Plaquenil; dexamethasone, a type of steroid use in a range of conditions to reduce inflammation; azithromycin, a commonly used antibiotic; and tocilizumab, an anti-inflammatory given by injection.
Early results on which treatments are safe and effective are expected by the end of June.
It comes after a leading member of AstraZeneca’s Oxford University vaccine trial said the study has only a 50 per cent chance of being successfully completed.
Lower transmission of the coronavirus in the community means it will be harder for trial participants to catch the virus, and for scientists to see if the vaccine is protective.
AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, said he believes there will be ‘several’ Covid vaccines ready for mass-use this year
More than 10,500 Covid patients are taking part in the Randomised Evaluation of COV-id19 thERapY (RECOVERY) trial, which is testing five drugs including hydroxychloroquine
Lopinavir/ritonavir, marketed under the brand names Kaletra and Aluvia, is an anti-HIV medicine also being trialled
Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and the Oxford Vaccine Group began development on a vaccine in January, using a virus taken from chimpanzees.
Following an initial phase of testing on 160 healthy volunteers between 18 and 55, the study has now progressed into phases two and three.
Researchers are increasing testing to up to 10,260 people and expanding the age range of volunteers to include children and the elderly.
Professor Adrian Hill, director of Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, said he expected fewer than 50 of those to catch the virus. The results could be deemed useless if fewer than 20 test positive.
‘We said earlier in the year that there was an 80 per cent chance of developing an effective vaccine by September,’ he told The Sunday Telegraph.
‘But at the moment, there’s a 50 per cent chance that we get no result at all.
‘We’re in the bizarre position of wanting Covid to stay, at least for a little while. But cases are declining.
If SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, is not spreading in the community, volunteers will find it difficult to catch, meaning scientists can’t prove whether the vaccine actually makes any difference.
WHAT IS THE OXFORD VACCINE AND WHO CAN GET ONE?
What type of vaccine is it?
The vaccine is called AZD1222 and is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus (adenovirus) from chimpanzees that has been genetically changed so it is impossible for it to grow in humans.
The intellectual rights to its vaccine are owned by the University of Oxford and a spin-out company called Vaccitech.
Clinical teams at the Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group began developing the vaccine in January.
It’s a type of immunisation known as a recombinant viral vector vaccine.
Researchers place genetic material from the coronavirus into another virus that’s been modified. They will then inject the virus into a human, hoping to produce an immune response against SARS-CoV-2.
This virus, weakened by genetic engineering, is a type of virus called an adenovirus, the same as those which cause common colds, that has been taken from chimpanzees.
If the vaccines can successfully mimic the spikes inside a person’s bloodstream, and stimulate the immune system to create special antibodies to attack it, this could train the body to destroy the real coronavirus if they get infected with it in future.
It was developed so rapidly by Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology, and her team because they already had a base vaccine for similar coronaviruses.
The team have gone through stages of vaccine development that usually take five years in just four months.
However, Professor Gilbert said that none of the normal safety steps had been missed out.
Will it be successful?
Professor Gilbert has been vocal about her confidence in the vaccine.
She acknowledged nobody can be ‘completely certain’ that it is possible to find a vaccine for Covid-19, but the prospects are ‘very good’.
In an interview before trials began, Professor Gilbert told the paper she is ’80 per cent’ confident of its success, ‘based on other things that we have done with this type of vaccine’.
University of Oxford scientists are confident they can get the jab for the incurable virus rolled out for millions to use by autumn.
But Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific advisor to the Government, has said expectations for a vaccine need to be tempered.
Writing in The Guardian ahead of the Oxford trials, Sir Patrick wrote: ‘All new vaccines that come into development are long shots; only some end up being successful, and the whole process requires experimentation. This will take time, and we should be clear it is not a certainty.’
What obstacles will the team face?
Some obstacles are expected to emerge while searching for a vaccine. For example, if transmission levels of COVID-19 levels drop in the community, it could hamper the Oxford study.
Professor Gilbert has said they may have to continue their trials in other countries where more of the virus is circulating in the community.
In this case, it could be at least six months before researchers know if the vaccine works. If transmission remains high in the UK, the team could get data within a couple of months.
Andrew Pollard, who is part of the Oxford team, said there may be hurdles when testing the vaccine on older people.
‘For most vaccines the immune system in older adults, particularly those over 70, doesn’t make such good responses,’ he said.
‘If we did see weaker responses in older adults we also have in our plan that we would look at giving additional doses in that age group to try and improve the immune response.’
Professor Gilbert had previously said her team needed help manufacturing the jabs, warning the UK did not have the facilities to do it alone, before a deal was struck with AstraZeneca.
How does it compare to other vaccines?
According to the World Health Organisation, 118 COVID-19 vaccines are in development worldwide as of May 15. But the UK now joins only the United States and China in beginning human trials. Eight vaccine candidates are now in preclinical trials.