Coronavirus: Human COVID-19 vaccine trial underway in the UK

coronavirus vaccine
It's hoped the vaccine will be ready by the end of the year. Photo credit: Getty

A vaccine for COVID-19 developed by scientists at the University of Oxford could be available by the end of the year, after the institution struck a deal with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

Costs will be kept down by AstraZeneca forgoing its usual profits, only charging for the costs of production and distribution of the vaccine, called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19. 

"Our hope is that, by joining forces, we can accelerate the globalisation of a vaccine to combat the virus and protect people from the deadliest pandemic in a generation," said AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot.

The vaccine, called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, has just entered human trials. The first signs of whether it works or not should come in June, but production capacity is already being ramped up in the hope it does.

AstraZeneca told the Financial Times it wants to have 100 million doses ready by the end of the year. 

"We also want to make sure that the rest of the world will be ready to make this vaccine at scale so that it gets to populations in developing countries, for example, where the need is very great," University of Oxford professor Sir John Bell told BBC Radio 4. 

"We really need a partner to do that and that partner has a big job in the UK because our manufacturing capacity in the UK for vaccines isn't where it needs to be, and so we are going to work together with AstraZeneca to improve that considerably."

More than 800 people are taking part in the trial.

"Personally I have a high degree of confidence in this vaccine," University of Oxford vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert, who led the team which developed it, told BBC News last week

"Of course, we have to test it and get data from humans. We have to demonstrate it actually works and stops people getting infected with coronavirus before using the vaccine in the wider population."

It works by introducing to the body a modified version of the common cold. It's very weak, and has had the spike protein from the coronavirus added. The body learns what it looks like and produces antibodies, with the hope that when it sees the real coronavirus, it's ready to fight it off. 

The team will know whether it works or not by comparing the number of people in the trial who got the vaccine and fall sick, to those who received a placebo. The worry is if the UK manages to stop the spread of the disease, there might not be enough data to figure out if it works.

Other potential vaccines

ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 is just one of more than 100 potential vaccines in production. Most vaccines take several years to develop, but the severity of COVID-19 - which is brand new to humanity, so has the potential to infect everyone in the world - has prompted an unprecedented rush to find one. 

Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates recently announced plans to "waste" billions of dollars on vaccines that don't work, in the hope of finding one that does. 

"It'll be a few billion dollars we'll waste on manufacturing for the constructs that don't get picked because something else is better," he told The Daily Show in April.

"But a few billion in this situation we're in, where there's trillions of dollars - a thousand times more - trillions of dollars being lost economically, it is worth it."

Another vaccine is being tested on humans in China. This one showed promise in monkeys, with none of those receiving the vaccine falling sick after being infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19.

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