Since coronavirus emerged in January almost 200 vaccine candidates have been put into development, with at least 15 in human trials.
Vaccines undergoing trials at Oxford University and in Germany are the most likely candidates to be ready this year, experts have said, but there are also candidates being tested in the US, Russia and China.
However, the head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce has warned that a jab is likely to be only 50 per cent effective. Kate Bingham said any vaccine capable of immunising against the coronavirus will likely only be as effective as the flu vaccine.
“The vaccines we have for flu are about 50 per cent effective, and they are annual shots, based on the strain that emerges each summer which we then get vaccinated for the winter,” Ms Bingham said. “So, I think it would be fair to say, we shouldn’t assume it’s going to be for the moment, better than a flu vaccine.
She also said that there is a “slim” chance that the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine could be ready before Christmas.
A roll out of the vaccine is being considered for December, with sources saying that there is a “50/50” chance of the jab being available by the end of the year.
Discussions are already underway between NHS England, the British Medical Association (BMA) as well as other groups over who will administer the vaccines and who will be the first to receive it. There is debate on whether the first groups to be vaccinated will be care home patients and staff, or healthcare professionals such as GPs.
A vaccine is important, because – as the Chief Scientific Officer for England, Sir Patrick Vallance, noted – “something under 8 per cent of the population” have been infected and/or have antibodies. It may be higher in the cities, as high as 17 per cent, he said, but added that the vast majority of us do not have immunity. Even those who do have antibodies will probably see their immunity diminish over time.
However, Sir Patrick warned that a vaccine is unlikely to eradicate coronavirus, with the disease instead likely to become endemic. He said the “notion of eliminating Covid is not right”, adding that people would have to learn to live with the virus.
Here’s everything you need to know about what vaccines are being developed, the latest news, and when a jab might be ready.
What’s the latest news in the hunt for a vaccine?
The Imperial trial is being run by hVivo, a spin-off company from Queen Mary University of London. Already roughly 2,000 people have signed up to take part in challenge studies in Britain through the group 1Day Sooner.
Those testing the vaccine will be given the jab and will then wait a month for antibodies to build. The volunteers will then be exposed to the virus.
Currently, vaccines are tested at population level, so scientists look to see whether a smaller percentage of people are infected than would be expected in the vaccine arm of the trial compared to a control group.
However worldwide lockdowns have meant that virus in the community has been very low in recent months, and scientists have struggled to get enough data to know whether their vaccines are working.
Oxford University has been forced to move some of its vaccine testing to South America and South Africa, although it is expecting results back soon.
How do vaccines work, how long do they take to make, and why?
A vaccine stimulates your body’s immune system to produce antibodies and fight off a disease. It does this by introducing into your body the germs that cause disease. Your immune system then fights off these germs, developing the antibodies that then make you immune. Vaccines, therefore, can be potent weapons in preventing disease.
However, developing a vaccine is complicated. While researchers are confident that a vaccine could be ready by the summer of 2021, that would be the fastest humans have ever gone from seeing a brand new pathogen to developing a vaccine against it.
Here’s the journey a vaccine takes, from initial development to approval:
- Before clinical testing: At this stage, scientists test the vaccine on cells and then give the virus to animals. If the vaccine produces an immune response – ie if antibodies are produced – it can move to the next stage
- Phase 1 testing: In these tests, also known as safety trials, the vaccine is tested on a small number of people. It is in this stage that scientists work out the dosage and if the jab produces an immune response in humans
- Phase 2: Now the vaccine is tested on a lot more people, with hundreds of participants split into groups, often by age. Sometimes, to speed up the process, phases 1 and 2 can be combined.
- Phase 3: In the third phase of testing, the vaccine is delivered to thousands of people. The vaccine runs alongside a placebo. This phase is extremely important because it simulates mass adoption of the vaccine; the larger sample size of participants means that the trial can find out rare potential side effects of the vaccine that might not be present in smaller groups. The Oxford and Imperial vaccines are currently at this stage.
- Approval: If the vaccine passes through these stages, it can be approved by national regulators. Then it can be distributed. Scientists would continue to monitor people who receive the vaccine, in case it is not safe. However, researchers have expressed concern that approval could be rushed without adequate scrutiny – as with China and Russia’s vaccines – or that emergency authorisation of a coronavirus vaccine could be dangerous. Approval is also subject to political pressures, such as President Trump’s hope to get a vaccine distributed to Americans before he faces the polls on November 3.
Having to satisfy the safety criteria in each of these stages is why developing a vaccine is such a long and complicated process.