Coronavirus: The UK says it will create COVID vaccine by autumn – but is it possible?

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The UK has announced human trials for a coronavirus vaccine it says could be ready by autumn.

Despite a normal development time of 18 months or more for a vaccine, an Oxford research team believes large-scale production could be underway as soon as September – about nine months after the novel coronavirus was first spotted in China.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

UK health secretary Matt Hancock said the new trial began on Thursday. Speaking at the British government’s daily press briefing Hancock said he is “throwing everything at” the country’s efforts to create a COVID-19 vaccine.

Hancock pledged £20 million ($24.6 million) of funding for the Oxford project, and £22.5 million for clinical trials of another prototype at Imperial College London.

The US, China, and now Germany, which announced clinical tests on Wednesday, are the only other countries to have begun human trials.

A million doses by autumn?

According to Professor Andrew Pollard, a member of the Oxford team developing the vaccine, it would be possible to develop millions of doses by autumn – assuming everything went well.

“If you had a sailing wind and absolutely nothing goes wrong in all of that complex technical process and you have all the facilities available, you could have millions of doses by the autumn of this year,” Pollard told Sky News.

However, he said it was unlikely that the vaccine could be rolled out on a mass scale before the end of 2020, even if no problems arose.

“But to the very large scale, there’s a huge technical effort to get there and I think it’s unlikely that that could happen before the end of this year,” he told Sky News.

“If the trials are successful there’s a big technical hurdle to upscale doses of the vaccine to the millions, tens of millions or even billions that would be needed for the world.”

“It’s a very different manufacturing process to be able to make such large volumes of vaccine. The capacity to do that round the world is quite limited,” he added.

SARS, MERS vaccine research gives head start

Pollard said the Oxford project had been given a head start by work already done on the SARS and MERS coronaviruses, viruses from the same family as COVID-19 which experienced outbreaks in recent years.

“When this new virus emerged there was already work going on in Oxford on MERS coronavirus and a vaccine was being trialed on humans,” he said.

“What happened was that the genetic code from the new coronavirus was discovered in January and it was possible to go back to that genetic code and make these new vaccines very rapidly.”

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Global vaccine race

In America, the US government has committed to a $1 billion COVID-19 vaccine deal with Johnson & Johnson, co-financing research through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda).

Human trials on the vaccine have already started in the US – breaking records for the speed with which such trials can get off the ground. Healthy volunteers in America are being given the new-generation “genetic hack” after it bypassed standard animal testing as part of a highly expedited process.

It has also been reported that GSK and Sanofi have teamed up to develop a coronavirus treatment, and plan to have a vaccine ready for testing by the end of 2020.

However, David Nabarro, professor of global health at London’s Imperial College, has previously warned that it may never be possible to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the disease, and that humanity may have to “find ways to go about our lives with this virus as a constant threat.”

The UK’s Hancock has also conceded that the vaccine under development in Britain may not work out: “Nothing about this process is certain. Vaccine development is a matter of trial and error and trial again. That’s the nature of how vaccines are developed,” he said.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine: 7 insights from former US Science Envoy

Why does it take so long to create a vaccine?

The biggest hurdle for vaccine development is manufacture and distribution at scale.

Health experts have warned that the virus could hit Britain in “multiple waves,” which has led to fears that some vaccines might not work on mutated strains.

But Pollard said it is “not surprising” to see mutations in the virus due to its genetic makeup.

He added: “So far, there haven’t been new viruses emerging, which are unable to be prevented by the types of immune responses that we expect to be generated by the vaccines being developed.”

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