THERE are over 100 organisations working on the creation of a vaccine to combat Covid-19. In the worldwide race for a vaccine to stop the coronavirus, the frontrunning laboratory is at Oxford University. Most other teams have had to start with small clinical trials of a few hundred participants to demonstrate safety. But scientists at the university’s Jenner Institute had a head start on a vaccine, having proved in previous trials that similar inoculations – including one last year against an earlier coronavirus – were harmless to humans.
That has enabled them to leap ahead and schedule tests of their new coronavirus vaccine involving more than 6,000 people by the end of June – they have already done tests on 1,100 volunteers, hoping to show not only that it is safe but also that it works.
The leader and the inspiration of the talented team at Oxford University is an Irishman.
Adrian Hill grew up in Ranelagh, Dublin where he attended Belvedere College which was run by the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. He was accepted into Trinity College where he enrolled to study Medicine. In the summer of 1981 he travelled to Zimbabwe to work with his uncle, a priest who worked in a hospital in Harare. He became fascinated with the efforts to treat patients who had contracted malaria and other tropical diseases.
“I came back wondering, ‘What do you see in these hospitals in England and Ireland. They don’t have any of these diseases.’ ”
From Trinity College he transferred to Oxford, to Magdalen College, where he undertook a DPhil in molecular medicine focused on the genetics of Pacific Islanders.
He joined the then new Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine as a Wellcome Senior Fellow in 1988 and began work on immunogenetics in West Africa that led to his current interest in malaria vaccine design and development.
He is Professor of Human Genetics and a Fellow by Special Election at Magdalen and now is Director of the Jenner Institute which focuses on designing and developing vaccines for infectious diseases prevalent in developing countries, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The Jenner Institute’s Coronavirus efforts grew out of Prof Hill’s so-far unsuccessful pursuit of a vaccine against a different scourge, malaria and he has helped build Oxford’s institute into one of the largest academic centres dedicated to nonprofit vaccine research, with its own pilot manufacturing facility capable of producing a batch of up to 1,000 doses.
In 2014, a vaccine based on a chimp virus that Professor Hill had tested was altered to create a vaccine against MERS, an earlier version of Covid-19. When Covid became a biological worldwide killer the entire Oxford focus shifted to testing and tweaking their existing vaccines.
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana last month inoculated six rhesus macaque monkeys with single doses of the Oxford vaccine. The animals were then exposed to heavy quantities of the virus that is causing the pandemic – exposure that had consistently sickened other monkeys in the lab. But more than 28 days later all six were healthy, said Vincent Munster, the researcher who conducted the test.
Professor Hill has refused to license their research to any drug company. “I personally don’t believe that in a time of pandemic there should be exclusive licenses,” Professor Hill said.
“So we are asking a lot of them. Nobody is going to make a lot of money off this.”
The Oxford scientists on the Covid-19 team now say that with an emergency approval from regulators, the first few million doses of their vaccine could be available in a couple of months from now, by September
I watched the broadcast from Downing Street. For once, I believed the politician when he talked about “working round the clock by day and night” “leaving no stone unturned” etc, but it’s Adrian Hill’s team, not Boris Johnson’s who are burning the midnight oil.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma (I never laid eyes on him until today) reading from his prepared script, told us that the clinical trial for a Covid-19 vaccine at the University of Oxford is progressing well.
The business secretary said the government had so far invested £47 million in vaccine programmes at Oxford and also Imperial College London, and announced a further £84 million in new funding “to help accelerate their work”.
He said: “This new money will help mass-produce the Oxford vaccine so that if current trials are successful we have dosages to start vaccinating the UK population straight away.”
Serum, the giant Indian drug-producing Institute, began last week manufacturing some 40 million doses at their own risk and cost, so confident are they of the vaccine success. Pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca have finalised a “global licensing agreement” with Oxford University with government support.
“This means that if the vaccine is successful AstraZeneca will work to make 30 million doses available by September for the UK as part of an agreement for over 100 million doses in total,” Mr Sharma said.
I normally don’t take the flu injection but I will be looking for it and the Covid-19 vaccine this autumn as I'm optimistic that Professor Hill and his team will succeed. However, I’ll have some reservations.
An Oxford University lecturer, Dr Emily Cousens, said: “If there is enough vaccine to go round, the UK will be the world’s saviour. We’ll quickly forget the devastating delay of the UK government to take action, as Boris Johnson proudly safeguarded British institutions like individual liberty, and the pub, over lives...
“If my university is the first to develop the vaccine, I’m worried that it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.”
I agree with her but I’ll be aware of the efforts of an Irishman – and I’ll remember that I live in a different nation to Mr Johnston, the Prime Minister who discontinued testing in March and delayed lockdown which allowed events such as Cheltenham and refused to have checks at ports and airports while abandoning care homes, their residents and staff.