UK COVID-19 Update: New Vaccine Hope as Moderna Announces Encouraging Results

Peter Russell

November 16, 2020

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Moderna mRNA Vaccine 'Almost 95% Effective'

A candidate vaccine to protect against COVID-19 is almost 95% effective, according to US company Moderna.

The results from early data, revealed in a press release, came a week after Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their vaccine could prevent more than 90% of people developing COVID-19.

Both companies use the same messenger RNA (mRNA) technology.

Experts said the latest results reinforced hopes that a vaccine would allow a return to normal life

However, expectations in the UK were dampened because the Government has yet to agree a deal for a supply of the vaccine.

The first interim analysis by Moderna was based on a trial involving more than 30,000 volunteers in the US, in whom there were 95 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of these, 90 cases were observed in those who received a placebo, and 5 in those given the vaccine candidate, called mRNA-1273.

Following statistical analysis, this translated to a vaccine efficacy of 94.5%, the company said.

The 95 COVID-19 cases included 15 people aged 65 and older, and 20 participants from ethnic backgrounds.

The vaccine was well tolerated, with fatigue (9.7%) and myalgia (8.9%) being the main side effects.

Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer at Moderna, said: "This positive interim analysis from our phase III study has given us the first clinical validation that our vaccine can prevent COVID-19 disease, including severe disease."

It is understood that the Moderna vaccine is stable for up to six months at -20 degrees C, whereas Pfizer's requires storage at -70 degrees C.

However, lower supply chain costs might be offset by Moderna's vaccine being more expensive to produce than that of its rival.

Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Science Media Centre: "This announcement from Moderna is a further encouragement that vaccines will be found to not only have an acceptable efficacy, but an efficacy that is much greater than we had anticipated.

"This press release is more specific than that of others, in that it confirms the numbers in each group, which was able to be guessed at but to have it confirmed is helpful.

"The range of minor adverse effects reported are unsurprising and typical of almost any vaccine."

Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, cautioned: "What we still don’t know is how long any protective immunity may last. For that, we will need to wait."

Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, said: "One important unknown is whether this vaccine, or any of the vaccines currently in trials, prevents disease transmission.

"It is likely that vaccines that prevent symptomatic disease will reduce the duration and level of infectiousness, and thus reduce transmission, but we don't yet know if this effect will be large enough to make any meaningful difference to the spread of the virus within communities."

A Government spokesperson said: "As part of the ongoing work of the Vaccines Taskforce, the Government is in advanced discussions with Moderna to ensure UK access to their vaccine as part of the wider UK portfolio."

Phase III Janssen Vaccine Trial Begins in UK

Phase III clinical trials of a candidate vaccine to protect against COVID-19 have begun in the UK today.

Six thousand UK volunteers are due to take part in the study to test safety and efficacy for the vaccine developed by Janssen, part of Johnson and Johnson.

The trials will take place at 17 National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) sites.

A further 24,000 volunteers are being recruited in other countries.

Janssen's Ad26.COV2.S is the third candidate vaccine to enter clinical trials in the UK, alongside a potential vaccine developed by US biotech company Novavax, and another from the University of Oxford in partnership with AstraZeneca.

Like the Oxford vaccine, Janssen's is an adenoviral vaccine.

The recruitment, which involves volunteers drawn from the NHS Vaccines Registry, will complete in March 2021 and the trial will last for 12 months.

The start of the phase III trial follows the positive results from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech from their mRNA-based vaccine trials.

Prof Saul Faust, director of the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility and chief investigator for the Janssen Phase III trial, said: "While the news of a potential vaccine is tremendously exciting, our ambition in the scientific community is to ensure we leave no stone unturned in the search for a solution to help end this pandemic.

"All the vaccines that are being trialled work by generating immune responses to the same part of the coronavirus as the RNA vaccine that has announced some interim early results."

PM Self Isolates After Being Contacted by NHS Test and Trace

Boris Johnson has begun a period of self-isolation after being told to self-isolate following contact with a Conservative MP who later tested positive for COVID-19.

In a video released earlier today, the Prime Minister urged other people to follow his example and "follow the rules" if contacted by NHS Test and Trace.

It is understood that Mr Johnson was contacted by a clinician at the service on Sunday after spending 35 minutes last Thursday with Lee Anderson, who lost his sense of taste and smell the following day.

The PM, who was hospitalised earlier this year after contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, said in a video he felt "as fit as a butcher's dog", and was "bursting with antibodies".

The development followed a tumultuous few days for Mr Johnson, which saw the departure of his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and Downing Street director of communications, Lee Cain.

New Investment for COVID-19 Genomics Project

A programme exploring how COVID-19 spreads and evolves is to be expanded after a £12.2 million funding boost.

The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, spearheaded by the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge, was established in March to deliver large-scale and rapid whole-genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to local NHS centres and the UK Government.

The new money will increase sequencing capacity needed to meet increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases expected this winter.

Viral genome sequencing will help researchers monitor evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and could impact on efficacy of candidate vaccines currently being developed.

The new funding package has come from the Department for Health and Social Care testing innovation fund.

Prof Sharon Peacock, COG-UK's director, said: "The pattern of accumulation of mutations in the genomes enables us to determine the relatedness of virus samples and define viral lineages in order to understand whether local outbreaks are caused by transmission of single or multiple viral lineages.

"Analysis of viral genome sequences also allow us to monitor the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assess whether specific mutations influence transmission, disease severity, or the impact of interventions such as vaccines."

New 'Mega Labs' Aimed at Increasing Testing Capacity

Two new laboratories in England and Scotland are due to open next year to boost UK testing capacity and increase turnaround times for test results.

Together, the two labs would add 600,000 to daily testing capacity when operating at full capacity, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

One of the laboratories will be based in Leamington Spa and the other at a site in Scotland yet to be confirmed.

The so-called 'mega labs' will use robotics and automation while also employing a multi-skilled workforce of up to 2000 people.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the facilities would improve the UK's diagnostic capabilities. "These mega labs are future-proofing our national infrastructure to respond to future epidemics and improving care for other diseases, such as cancer," he said.

Pilot Scheme to Enable Care Home Visits

A pilot scheme to enable named family members or friends to visit people in care homes was launched today.

The scheme would see designated individuals given regular testing so they can be reunited with a loved one.

The pilot is taking place in around 20 care homes across Hampshire, Cornwall, and Devon.

It would be rolled out more widely in December in time for Christmas, the DHSC said.

Visitors will be offered either polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which they can do at home, or the new 30-minute rapid lateral flow tests (LFTs), which can be administered in person at care homes before a visit.

Helen Whately, the Minister for Care, said: "Each resident will be able to have one relative or friend who can be their 'key visitor' who will take a COVID test, and then be able to come for an indoor visit without a screen."

Fiona Carragher, director of research and influencing at the Alzheimer's Society, commented: "We have to recognise the terrible mental health toll on people with dementia simply giving up on life, as well as on the many thousands of grieving families who haven't been able to be with their loved ones in their last months, weeks, and days, and who will never be able to get that precious time back.

"We urge the Government to learn the lessons from the pilots speedily, ensuring all designated family carers get visiting access fast via a national rollout, regardless of area transmission rates – with testing and equipment in place, safe visits must happen now to avoid further tragedy."

Long COVID Clinics

The first of a network of more than 40 'Long COVID' specialist clinics in England will open later this month to offer help to thousands of patients who experience debilitating effects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus months after being infected.

NHS England has earmarked 10 sites in the Midlands, seven in the North East, six each in the East of England, South West and South East, five in London and three in the North West.

It said a taskforce made up of patients, charities, researchers, and clinicians, would help manage the NHS approach to the condition and produce information and support materials for patients and healthcare professionals.

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive said: "Long COVID is already having a very serious impact on many people’s lives and could well go on to affect hundreds of thousands.

"That is why, while treating rising numbers of patients who are sick with the virus and many more who do not have it, the NHS is taking action to address those suffering ongoing health issues.

"These pioneering 'long COVID' clinics will help address the very real problems being faced by patients today while the taskforce will help the NHS develop a greater understanding of the lasting effects of coronavirus."

Long COVID, which can cause continuing fatigue, brain fog, breathlessness, and pain, is believed to affect more than 60,000 people in the UK.

A study from King's College London found that older people, women and those with a greater number of different symptoms in the first week of their illness were more likely to develop long COVID.

Evidence published last month by the National Institute for Health Research suggested that 'long COVID' could in fact be up to four different syndromes and include post intensive care syndrome, post viral fatigue syndrome and permanent organ damage, as well as multiple non-resolving symptoms of long term COVID.

Funding Concerns Over Vaccine Programme

Frontline doctors expressed concerns that a funding shortfall could limit the ability of primary care to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine programme in England.

In a letter to NHS England, the Doctors' Association UK (DAUK) warned that a lack of investment, coupled with pressures on working hours and logistics, could mean that not all GP surgeries would be able to offer a vaccine to patients.

Dr Lizzie Toberty, from DAUK's GP committee said: "Primary care is the best-placed service with the expertise and knowledge to deliver the vaccine safely and efficiently.  However, there must be adequate resources made available in order to do this.

"We urgently need funding to renovate buildings, provide adequate PPE, and enough staff to administer the vaccine safely. It must also be recognised that primary care needs to continue all of our vital, routine work too."

 

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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