As early as 2018, The World Health Organisation added a “Disease X” to its list of disease threats that could cause a global pandemic. “Disease X” would sit alongside other highly contagious diseases such as SARS and Ebola. This was a placeholder for an unknown human disease – in 2020, this disease finally emerged. It was named COVID-19.
Since the beginning of the year to date, the worldwide death toll has passed 287,000. The number of confirmed cases is more than 4.2 million* and without a vaccine, the number of transmissions and a rising death toll cannot be stopped.
(* Source of data: New Scientist Magazine 12/05/20)
Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group, renowned for its research and technology associated with infectious diseases and vaccines have been at the global forefront of leading the charge to develop and mass-produce a vaccine for COVID-19. How can this be that the scientists in Oxford are leading the charge over the USA and China who have declared that they are still 12-18 months away from a vaccine? To understand this, we first need to understand what is required.
Three Steps to beating Covid-19
- A vaccine that will combat COVID-19 needs to be developed.
- A clinical trial on a mass scale is required to prove out the effectiveness of the vaccine.
- A process to bring to market through volume manufacture is required to ensure that the vaccine can be widely available.
Ahead of the Game
Oxford has a competitive advantage. In 2019, they developed the underlying technology ChAdOx1, which is also being used to successfully develop vaccines for a number of other respiratory diseases including MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), which is also caused by a different coronavirus. Led by Sarah Gilbert, the team at Oxford had decided early in the year following the release of information about a coronavirus outbreak from Wuhan, to look at creating a vaccine that could be used to treat “Disease X” based on this technology. Within the month, and following the release of the full genome sequence of the Sar-Cov-2 virus, the team had already started to work on the vaccine. It is now only three months later, but this head start has meant that human trials can start.
An Injection of UK government money has meant that at the end of April, trials with over 500 carefully selected volunteers began at a number of clinics in the UK, all using the vaccine developed by the team from Oxford. Should these trials prove successful with the vaccine proving effective against COVID-19 not causing unacceptable side effects and inducing positive immune response, then the trial will be extended to a further group of participants. The first results will likely be available within the next two months – much faster than some of the competition.
Successful trials are one thing; having the ability to mass-produce a vaccine is another. To ensure this, the team in Oxford has recently announced a landmark collaborative agreement with AstraZeneca, which will draw upon the core competences of the University’s expertise in vaccinology and AstraZeneca’s manufacturing and distribution capabilities. This will ensure that the vaccine can be swiftly and effectively brought to market globally to combat the deadliest virus that we have ever seen.
The world holds its breath
I applaud the team in Oxford and the tireless work to find the vaccine for COVID-19, and I do feel slightly biased towards a team with whom I have links to in the biotech world, but at the end of the day, this is not a race to come first with a competitive glint in your eye. This is a race to protect the human race from its deadliest foe, to defeat “Disease X”, and whether it is Oxford University or another team, the sooner it happens, the safer we will all be.