The eyes of the world were turned on Oxford University on Monday as the results of the first human trials of a potential Covid-19 vaccine were published.
The British team is the furthest ahead of all the 23 laboratories racing to find a way to prevent Covid-19, which has killed more than 610,000 people globally since December.
Experts hailed the results as a ‘really important milestone’ which kept alive the hope of a vaccine being rolled out before Christmas.
The trial, involving 1,077 health Britons, began on April 23 and ran for 56 days at five hospitals across Britain until May 21. It is still ongoing, but scientists have spent the past few weeks crunching the data.
The volunteers were split into four groups, and either received the Covid-19 vaccine or a safe meningitis vaccine. One group was also given an extra dose at 28 days to see if a booster was needed.
The results seem compelling. T-cell response began to grow in those receiving the vaccine and peaked at day 14, while neutralising antibodies were found in 91 per cent of the participants 28 days after vaccination. The booster group had a far greater immune response.
It also seems the vaccine is safe. There were no serious adverse reactions, and side-effects were confined to fatigue, headaches, pain at the injection site, and temporary flu-like symptoms including muscle ache, malaise, chills, feeling feverish, and high temperature.
The trial showed that taking paracetamol could allay most of the effects without impacting the efficacy of the vaccine.
The team now needs to find out if the vaccine actually prevents people from developing Covid-19, or at least serious conditions. A phase three trial is underway to test just that, and more than 10,000 people have so far been vaccinated.
There are also new arms to find out if the jab is safe for elderly people and those with comorbidities. So far only healthy people have tested the vaccine, but it is arguably the vulnerable and old who will benefit most, so it must be safe for those groups.
Prof Andrew Pollard, the study’s Chief Investigator said: “These are very encouraging results.
“What they show is a really important milestone on the path for development of the vaccine. We have first of all a vaccine which is very well tolerated by more than 1,000 volunteers and secondly we are seeing good immune response, exactly the sort of immune responses we were hoping for.
“We are now moving rapidly forwards to try to evaluate whether the vaccine actually protects the population.”
The hunt for a vaccine for Covid-19 actually began years before anyone knew the disease existed.
After the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) realised that a global pandemic was on the cards, and called on scientists around the world to think about therapies for a deadly ‘Disease X’.
Dr Sarah Gilbert and The Jenner Institute at Oxford University were one of the teams to answer the call, working on vaccines for both Ebola and Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome).
However, in both cases, the vaccine production process took so long that the diseases were dying away before the treatments were through trials.
So when Oxford scientists first heard about the cases emerging in China, they determined that this time the process must be quicker.
The team realised that their model for a Mers vaccine should also work for Covid-19, and so were able to get going immediately after Chinese scientists sequenced the virus in January.
For the Mers vaccine, the virus was fused with a harmless chimp adenovirus (a common virus), to create a ‘Trojan horse’ that would trigger an immune response.
The process is far quicker than making traditional vaccines from a weakened or inactivated form of the virus, which usually takes around five years.
The Mers vaccine has been successful in trials, and the virus shares a similar ‘spike protein’ with Covid-19, which is critical to infection, so scientists were hopeful the process would also work for Covid-19.
Oxford University already has its own vaccine manufacturing facility, so was able to quickly produce a drug ready for initial trials. By February 17th, the first successful tests were carried out, allowing the team to move to primates by March.
By mid-April, testing in monkeys showed the vaccine was not only safe but offered some protection. Six monkeys had been vaccinated and exposed to a huge load of the virus 28 days later. None of the animals developed serious disease.
At the end of April, the Oxford team had started their human trial on more than 1,100 people.
Originally it was hoped that results would be available in May, but the trial was hindered when Covid-19 cases plummeted after lockdown. In early June, the team was forced to begin trials of the vaccine in Brazil and South Africa, where cases were rising quickly.
The government has moved quickly to ensure that the pharmaceutical industry is ready to produce millions of doses, if a vaccine is proved safe and effective.
On March 23, the day Boris Johnson announced lockdown, the government announced a grant of £2.2 million to support the Oxford team, and a month later AstraZeneca came on board, agreeing to be responsible for global distribution and manufacturing.
In May, Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, said the UK would be the first country to get a vaccine, should trials be successful, and announced an extra £84 million in funding to accelerate British research, promised 100 million doses will be available.
The Government also announced on Monday, funding for a further 90 million doses from the BioNtech/Pfizer alliance and Valneva.
The experts are hopeful that if enough people are recruited in the next few weeks then efficacy could be proven by November, and regulatory approval granted by December.
It means that within a year, British scientists may have found a solution to one of the world’s biggest problems, heralding a merrier Christmas and a happier New Year.