Oxford’s quest to find a vaccine against COVID-19 continues

Scientist placing substance in a test tube
Source: Flickr

Since April, a team of researchers at the Oxford Jenner Institute have been gradually coming closer to developing a highly sought-after vaccine for COVID-19, AZD1222 (formerly ChAdOx1), with Business Secretary Alok Sharma stating that “the UK continues to lead the global response to find a vaccine”.

The role of AstraZeneca

Collaboration with an international company like AstraZeneca allows for rapid manufacturing and delivery if the vaccine proves to be effective. Part of AstraZeneca’s agreement includes supplying the vaccine to low and middle income countries which have been hit the worst by the pandemic and, therefore, AstraZeneca has been looking into working closely with other companies in order to expand the current manufacturing capability of two billion.

The company’s agreement with Gavi and CEPI was the first advanced market commitment developed through the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. The ACT Accelerator, co-chaired by the WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is a mechanism to ensure the fair and equal distribution of a successful vaccine internationally, specifically targeting low-and-middle income countries. CEPI is responsible for the development and manufacturing of the vaccine, while Gavi leads procurement through the ACT Accelerator.

What do the different phases aim to achieve?

In Phase I of the trial, which began in ­­­­April, more than 1000 healthy adult volunteers were inoculated with the vaccine with the aim of assessing the its impact on a healthy immune system, common side effects and the most effective dose.

The Phase II trial assesses the immune response in different age groups to determine if the vaccine behaves differently in the elderly or in children.

Phase III involves a much larger group of people over 18 and across the country to assess how effective the vaccine is to prevent infection of COVID-19. It also seeks to explore how prevent against the effects of COVID-19 such as pneumonia.

In all phases of human clinical trials, half of the participants are randomly selected to receive the MenACWY vaccine as an active control vaccine instead of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, so participant response to the vaccine can also be identified. MenACWY is an already licensed vaccine commonly administered to secondary school children in the UK and is being used as an active control for the vaccine as the side effects, such as a sore arm or temperature, are similar to ones experienced by those that have been injected with ChAdOx1 nCoV-19. This means participants will not be able to identify whether they have been injected with the control or the vaccine, which is critical to ensuring unbiased results in the study.

The exciting news is that clinical trials of the vaccine are expected to be over by August/September, which means that we are one step closer to a potential end to the pandemic. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously described a vaccine as “the only long-term solution” to end the pandemic.

However, Johnson has warned that the development of a vaccine may potentially never happen. The Head of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, Dr Kate Bingham, warned MPs that although the Oxford vaccine was leading the race, coronavirus was still a relatively unknown disease. “We may never get a vaccine”, Dr Bingham warned, “or we may only get a vaccine that modifies the severity of the disease”.

Although the development of the Oxford vaccine seems to be moving in a positive direction, we should be mindful that it may not turn out to be the one-stop cure we are all hoping for.

Click here see the latest updates in the University of Oxford’s coronavirus research and vaccine development.

Infographic created by Ipsita Sarkar.