Imperial Secures £22.5 Million for COVID-19 Vaccine Trials

Peter Russell

April 22, 2020

The Government would "throw everything we've got" into efforts to develop a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has promised.

Speaking at Tuesday's daily briefing, he also announced funding for two leading UK projects which he said were making "rapid progress".

Mr Hancock announced £22.5 million to support Phase II clinical trials of a vaccine by scientists at Imperial College London (ICL), and to begin work on Phase III trials.

He also announced he was awarding £20 million to fund clinical trials by a team from the University of Oxford which plans to begin vaccine testing in humans on Thursday.

The Imperial Project

Scientists from ICL's Department of Infectious Disease have been developing an RNA vaccine candidate and testing it in animals since early February.

They used the genetic code of the SARS-CoV-2 virus supplied by scientists in China to produce strands of DNA in the lab, which hold the building instructions for 'spike' proteins on the outside of the virus.

The DNA was built into plasmids to make a self-amplifying RNA vaccine containing a stabilised version of the spike protein, which they hope will provoke the body to produce more protective antibodies.

Early findings suggest that animals given the vaccine are able to produce neutralising antibodies against the coronavirus.

Future clinical trials will test whether this response can be replicated in humans, leading to protection against COVID-19.

Responding to the Government's funding promise, Prof Robin Shattock, who is leading the ICL team, said: "This investment will help us accelerate our clinical programme, moving from starting human safety trials in June through to testing whether the vaccine can prevent infection in the wider community.

"We are working as fast as we can to determine the vaccine's efficacy and to get to a position where millions or billions of the vaccine can be manufactured rapidly."

Results from a Phase I clinical trial could be available in September, ICL said.

The Oxford Project

At the daily Downing Street briefing yesterday, Mr Hancock confirmed that human trials of a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford's Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group clinical teams would begin human trials on Thursday.

The Oxford scientists began work on 10th January, a few weeks ahead of the ICL team.

A chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector (ChAdOx1), a well-studied vaccine type, was chosen for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine because it can generate a strong immune response from one dose. Also, it is not a replicating virus, so it cannot cause an ongoing infection in those who are vaccinated.

The scientists say this will make it safer to give to children, the elderly, and anyone with a pre-existing condition such as diabetes.

The Oxford vaccine contains the genetic sequence of the surface spike protein inside the ChAdOx1 construct. Following vaccination, the surface spike protein of the coronavirus is produced, which is designed to prime the immune system to attack SARS-CoV-2 if it later infects the body.

A Phase I trial starting this week will involve up to 510 healthy volunteers, aged 18 to 55 in the Thames Valley region, who will receive either the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine or a control injection for comparison.

The team is planning a Phase II trial which will extend the maximum age of participants to people aged 55 to 70, and then to individuals who are over 70 years.

A Phase III trial would involve 5000 participants with efficacy results emerging this autumn in a "best case scenario".

However, the "highly ambitious" timeframe could be influenced by the amount of virus transmission in the Thames Valley during the summer months, the team have said.

Dr Sandy Douglas, who is leading the project to manufacture large amounts of the vaccine, said: "The scale of this epidemic poses a huge challenge for vaccine manufacturing. We need to follow rigorous safety standards and that takes time. By starting work on large-scale manufacturing immediately, we hope to accelerate the availability of a high quality, safe vaccine."

Responding to the Government's latest funding announcement, Prof Andrew Pollard, Prof Sarah Gilbert, and Prof Adrian Hill, who are leading the Oxford team, said in a statement: "This week we will start the process of vaccine evaluation in our first human studies and are currently focussing all efforts on preparing for the start of the trials.

"Although it seems like a very long time since the work started, in reality it is less than 4 months since we first heard of an outbreak of severe pneumonia cases, and began to plan a response.

"Our brilliant team has been working tirelessly to get to this point using our skills and experience in vaccine development and testing, and will do the best job possible in moving quickly whilst at all times prioritising the safety of the trial participants."

Vaccine Taskforce

Last week the Government announced a Vaccine Taskforce to research and produce a coronavirus vaccine following a pledge to invest £250 million in the global effort.

The move was welcomed by the British Society for Immunology, whose Chief Executive, Doug Brown, said: "The human immune system is extremely complex and developing a vaccine against COVID-19 will not be an easy task. Key to this is making sure we have an in depth understanding of the exact immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and being able to harness this appropriately via a vaccine.

"All vaccine candidates will still need to go through many stages of testing to ensure that they are both safe and effective for widescale use. We need to be realistic about the timescale in which this can take place."

Last week, the Government's chief scientific adviser, injected a note of caution into hopes for a vaccine. Sir Patrick Vallance said: "Just to put some realism on vaccine development, that each single project does not have a high probability of success. So although everyone goes out with great enthusiasm, and we hope they work, it's never the case that you know you've got a vaccine that's going to work."

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