Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine starts human trials

A potential vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute in the United Kingdom. The vaccine, called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, will be tested on human subjects on April 23 according to The Telegraph.


The vaccine was first tested on rhesus macaque monkeys, as they are the closest subjects to humans, and the drug showed promising results. If proven successful in human testing, the vaccine could be given emergency approval to be distributed as early as September 2020, months ahead of the usual 12–18-month timeline experts use to approve and produce a vaccine.


However, immunity in monkeys does not necessarily guarantee immunity in humans. A Chinese company called SinoVac has also said its vaccine provided immunity to the rhesus macaques. 


Currently, Oxford has 1,100 volunteers, aged 18–55, to test the potential vaccine. Half of the subjects will be given the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine and the others will be given a widely-given meningitis vaccine, according to University of Oxford


The testing will also receive a further £20 million in funding from the U.K. Government.


“We are going to back them to the hilt and give them every resource they need to give them the best chance of success,” said U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock. 


According to France 24, Oxford teamed up with British drug producer AstraZeneca, which said it will help the University produce and distribute the vaccine. 


If successful, the group said it hopes to distribute 100 million doses of the vaccine by the end of the year, prioritizing its supply in the U.K. 


However, the vaccine trials may experience a challenge in finding subjects to test on, as social distancing in Britain has slowed infection. If infection continues to slow, then those with the vaccine may not be able to show a noticeable difference between those with the vaccine and the placebo. 


“We’re the only people in the country who want the number of new infections to stay up for another few weeks, so we can test our vaccine,” said Professor Adrian Hill, the Jenner Institute’s director and a researcher involved in the effort, to The New York Times


Ethics rules forbid researchers from purposefully infecting test subjects with a dangerous disease. 


If the virus slows enough in Britain, the institute says it could move to trails to other locations where the spread of coronavirus is still rampant. 


“We’ll have to chase the epidemic,” Hill said. “If it is still raging in certain states, it is not inconceivable we end up testing in the United States in November.”


The Telegraph reported there is a concern COVID-19 has mutated into two strains, one more aggressive than the other, which may lead to the vaccine not working on some mutated strains. 


Despite the promise and buzz around the Oxford-developed vaccine, it is not the only group trialing a potential drug. According to the World Health Organization, as of April 23, six other vaccines had entered human trials, and 77 others were in development.


Notably, two American companies, Moderna and Inovio, have started developing their own trials using genetically modified material, although neither company has successfully licensed or manufactured a drug. Similarly, a Chinese company called CanSino has also started clinical trials. 


Oxford scientists remain hopeful that even if the vaccine is unsuccessful, the trials will help experts learn more about the disease. 


“There’s always an unknown,” said Professor Sarah Gilbert, who is leading Oxford’s study. “We can never be certain that these vaccines will work. But personally, I think it has a very strong chance of working.”