Ray of light enters dark Covid tunnel

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent
Jul 21, 2020 04:05 AM IST

Leading the pack: Strides made in search for vaccines for other diseases put team from Oxford University miles ahead of others.

In the race for a vaccine for Covid-19, the Oxford University team was seen to be miles ahead in a fray that now includes 165 teams of researchers. While the first peer-reviewed study of its early-stage trials was published only Monday (two others beat it to that milestone earlier), the advantage the researchers have is in volumes – the Oxford team will have involved thousands of people in the trials by next month, a point at which others are likely to only be starting recruitment of such numbers.

A employee is seen at the Reference Center for Special Immunobiologicals (CRIE) of the Federal University of Sao Paulo (Unifesp) where the trials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine are conducted, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.(REUTERS)
A employee is seen at the Reference Center for Special Immunobiologicals (CRIE) of the Federal University of Sao Paulo (Unifesp) where the trials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine are conducted, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.(REUTERS)

“It’s the most advanced vaccine anywhere,” Bloomberg Businessweek quoted Kate Bingham, chair of the UK government’s Vaccine Taskforce, as having told a parliamentary committee in early July.

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Behind this feat, however, is research that has spanned over two decades in search for a vaccine – first for Malaria, before it was tweaked to target Mers and Ebola. In particular, it involves two Oxford University professors: Adrian Hill and Sarah Gilbert.

The two are part of Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, and Hill – who heads the institute – has worked with the particular technology behind the Covid-19 vaccine for decades now. The technique involves bioengineering a familiar virus (in this case, it’s a chimpanzee virus) to make it mimic the pathogen against which the researchers want inoculation.

Also read: Vaccine results shot in the arm for Covid fight

According to a New York Times report, Hill worked on this with Malaria as his target, and the first breakthrough came in 2014 when a vaccine based on the chimp virus that Hill tested was manufactured in a large enough scale to provide a million doses.

Around the time, Gilbert tweaked the same chimpanzee virus – technically called an adenovirus -- to make a vaccine for Mers, which was also a coronavirus, the report said. This would lay the foundation on which the Covid-19 vaccine was built, and lessons that allowed the Oxford team to short-circuit some parts of the trial process.


This is because most other teams first start with small clinical trials of a few hundred participants to demonstrate safety. But since the platform was already tested, the Oxford researchers let ahead and enrolled thousands of people from the beginning – merging Phase 1 and Phase II.

“We know the adverse event profile and we know the dose to use, because we’ve done this so many times before,” Bloomberg Businessweek quoted Gilbert as saying. “Obviously we’re doing safety testing, but we’re not concerned,” she added, according to a report published on July 15.

In addition to being poised to complete late-stage trials sooner than the others, the Oxford vaccine is also likely to race ahead because of the ease with which it can be manufactured, the funding and collaborations involved, and the support it has received.

Usually, traditional vaccines use a weakened version of a virus to trigger an immune response. But this technology comes requires painstaking precautions as well.

Also read | Covid-19: What you need to know today

The technology used in this case involves a virus that does not infect humans, making it safer and easier to scale up in the production stage.

The pandemic, which has exacted a near-unprecedented human and economic toll, also led to a never-before-seen mobilisation of vaccine funding and development efforts.

AstraZeneca has inked a $750 million deal with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to manufacture and distribute 300 million doses of the vaccine by the end of 2020, the drugmaker said in early June. It also agreed to a licensing deal with the Serum Institute of India to provide one billion doses of the vaccine to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), with the goal of 400 million produced by year’s end.

In total, the deals will bring AstraZeneca’s overall supply capacity for Oxford’s vaccine candidate to more than two billion doses per year, the drugmaker said. The agreement will task CEPI with manufacturing the vaccine, while Gavi will handle procurement.

While several countries, such as the United States and Russia, have struck separate deals with AstraZeneca, it remains to be seen how the licensing arrangement will work for India, which is among LMICs.

Seventy-five countries have submitted expressions of interest to protect their populations and those of other nations through joining the COVAX Facility, a mechanism designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines worldwide, according to a statement by WHO last week.

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