There is only a ‘slim’ chance Oxford University’s coronavirus jab will be ready to go before Christmas, the government’s vaccine tsar admitted today.
As cases and hospital admissions surge in Britain, chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce Kate Bingham said she is hopeful that trials will show signs of success by the end of the year but warned there is no guarantee.
Oxford’s jab, which works by transporting a fragment of the coronavirus into the body on-board another virus, is the global front-runner in the bid to stop the disease.
Early data from clinical trials suggest the vaccine is safe for people to receive and appears to trigger the correct type of immune response.
Hopes for ending the pandemic currently hinge on finding a jab that works as soon as possible. Without a vaccine or a cure – neither of which yet exist – there is no way to stop Covid-19.
Ms Bingham’s comments come after England’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, suggested last month the most vulnerable people in England could start receiving the vaccine before the end of 2020, with a wider public roll-out next year.
Kate Bingham, who was a biotech investor before being drafted in to help develop a vaccine for coronavirus, is pictured with a plaster on her arm after receiving the experimental coronavirus vaccine made by US firm Novavax
Ms Bingham said there is a ‘slim’ chance that Oxford’s vaccine could be done by the new year
Ms Bingham, who was a biotech investor before being drafted in to help develop a vaccine for coronavirus, said: ‘I think it’s a slim chance, but there is a chance, that we could have the Oxford vaccine before Christmas.’
The Oxford jab is currently in phase three trials, which are the final stage experiments done on a huge group of people to prove whether it works.
It has already proven to be safe in earlier tests on small groups and has now been given to more than 30,000 people in the UK, US, Brazil and South Africa.
Scientists will be looking at whether people who have had the jab have lower rates of positive tests than the general public, and whether they have significant levels of antibodies – immune substances equipped to fight the virus – in their blood in the weeks and months after receiving the vaccine.
If antibodies stay high, positive cases appear lower than in the non-vaccinated population, and participants have lower hospitalisation and death rates, the jab may be considered a success.
If this were to happen, the UK has already ordered 100million doses of the jab and Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists the country is first in line to get it.
Ms Bingham said that she felt ‘optimistic’ from the positive data seen so far.
She is also hoping to see late-stage data from another vaccine made by Pfizer and NBioTech, which is in similar stages of tests.
Others from the companies Valneva, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline have also been bought by Britain and could be successful.
‘If everything works, yes it’s possible we could get a vaccine this year but it’s most likely that it’ll be next year,’ Ms Bingham said.
She said the vaccines the UK had placed orders for were ‘spread across the ones that are most advanced through to the ones that we think are most likely to work and be safest.’
She added: ‘I am optimistic that we will see something – four of our six vaccines are now in phase three studies, and in each of them we’ve seen very positive data in the phase one and two clinical studies.
‘[This] shows that people who have received the vaccine do elicit a strong immune response, and that, and if you take the neutralising antibodies that are triggered those antibodies are able to kill live Covid virus.
‘So that is very positive and it’s as good as it can be at the moment.
‘And we now need to see whether or not those immune responses that we see translate into into protection.’
The vaccine expert said that it is unlikely that the first jab proven to work will be a silver bullet.
More likely is that it will offer a low level of protection which is able to stop people becoming seriously ill or dying, potentially reducing Covid-19 to something more like a flu or mild chest infection.
Any vaccine will likely require more than one dose, she said.
‘The ideal is that you get vaccinated and then you’re protected from infection for life,’ Ms Bingham said.
‘Then the other extreme, the other bookend as it were, would be it doesn’t stop infection, but just reduces the severity of symptoms.
‘And frankly, I think anything that that falls in that spectrum, would be a plus.’
She continued: ‘The vaccines we have for flu are about 50 per cent effective, and they are annual shots, based on the strain that emerges each summer which we then get vaccinated for the winter.
‘So, I think it would be fair to say, we shouldn’t assume it’s going to be for the moment, better than a flu vaccine.
‘Because that’s an equivalent – it’s a mutating virus and it’s a respiratory virus that gets in through the nose and eyes and respiratory tract.’
Ms Bingham, who is taking part in the Novavax vaccine trial herself, is urging elderly people and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups to come forward to join the vaccine trials.
At the moment more than nine in 10 people on the trial (93 per cent) are white, 4 per cent are Asian and less than 0.5 per cent are black.
She added: ‘What we don’t know is will the vaccines work in everybody?
‘And that’s why we’re running the clinical studies, and that’s why we’ve got a call to arms to say to those people who are most at risk of infection – we need them to step up to get to join the vaccine trials so we can show that the vaccines work.’
It comes as the Johnson & Johnson trial of its Covid-19 vaccine has been paused due to illness in one participant.
But experts stressed that trial pauses are a common aspect of clinical research.
The Oxford University study was also paused temporarily in September after a participant fell ill, but has since resumed in the UK. The American arm of the trial remains on pause while officials assess the data.
Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: ‘Normally pauses in recruitment in a trial do not reach the public domain.
‘They are frequent where thousands of healthy people are given something new, notably a vaccine.
‘The fact that trials are paused should indicate that there should be confidence in the whole process of monitoring the safety of trial participants is working well.’
To sign up to the vaccine registry, visit www.nhs.uk/researchcontact.