THE SCIENTIST whose team at Oxford University is leading the world in the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine is “optimistic” it will give protection for “several years at least” and may be ready by the autumn.
Professor Sarah Gilbert said a vaccine would only be likely to “take the edge off” symptoms, rather than giving complete protection.
⚠️ Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest news & updates
Oxford University researchers have partnered with drugs giant Astrazeneca to mass produce it.
Professor Gilbert told MPs on the science and technology select committee: “Manufacturing is scaling up. We’re getting improvements in the ability of companies to manufacture the vaccine.
“The aim is by the autumn to have a large amount of vaccine ready to use.
“And as soon as we have the efficacy results and can go through the emergency use licence process we’ll be able to start vaccinating.”
She said it had been difficult to recruit enough people to test whether the vaccine was working because coronavirus cases in the UK had fallen substantially after the end of March when the country was put in lockdown.
It means the Oxford University team has been forced to recruit thousands of new test subjects in Brazil and South Africa, where there has been a spike in new infections.
Volunteers last week received some of the first injections of the Oxford coronavirus jab.
The delay means a vaccine will take longer than expected. Prof Gilbert had previously said was “80 per cent confident” the vaccine would work and that it could be ready as soon as September.
She told MPs yesterday: “When we started our phase-one trial, we were told by the modellers that if we could get 1,000 people vaccinated by the end of April we would have a result of vaccine efficacy during May because the transmission at the time was predicted to be such that we would see the results clearly.
“The country went into lockdown and now transmission has reduced a lot.”
However she was hopeful the jab would offer immunity for “several years at least”.
She said: “It’s something we have to test and follow over time – we can’t know until we actually have the data – but we’re optimistic based on earlier studies that we will see a good duration of immunity, for several years at least, and probably better than naturally acquired immunity.”
Kate Bingham, chairwoman of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, told the committee that while she was optimistic a vaccine would be developed, in the short-term it may just be one that reduces the severity of the disease, rather than prevents people from getting it.
“I’m relatively optimistic we will have ‘a’ vaccine,” she said. “But in the near term we may just have to satisfy ourselves with a vaccine that reduces the severity of the disease.”
Asked when a vaccine may be available, she said maybe by early next year depending on the success of clinical trials.
Speaking at the same committee, Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, warned the UK must “prepare for the worst” this winter instead of relying on the development of a successful vaccine.
Sir John said: “This whole epidemic has relied too heavily on assumptions that have turned out not to be true.
“So, my strong advice is be prepared for the worst.”
The MPs also heard that it could be chaos in hospitals if the UK sees a resurgence of coronavirus this winter, alongside a serious flu season.
Sir John said it was therefore important to make sure that people were getting the flu vaccine.
He explained: “I think one of the things that clinical staff in hospitals worry about is if we do have a significant flu season.
“Then we are going to have a bit of a clinical problem if we’ve also got Covid running alongside because you’ll get people with severe pneumonias arriving with fever and all the usual things, and it’ll be pandemonium in the A&E departments.
“So, what I’m rather hoping is that first of all we ideally expand the number of people getting flu vaccines so we get better coverage, and secondly we push quite hard to make sure people are compliant and participate in the flu vaccine programmes.”
CORONAVIRUS CRISIS – STAY IN THE KNOW
Don’t miss the latest news and figures – and essential advice for you and your family.