How long does it take to make a vaccine?
Widespread vaccinations for COVID-19 could come as early as September, according to one of the leading scientists behind the battle to control the virus.
Professor Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, is leading the team at the forefront of drug therapies, antibody testing and contact tracing systems.
We were delighted to hear him speak at the latest, exclusive ‘Coutts in Conversation’ online event, chaired by Coutts Chairman Lord Waldegrave. These events are designed to connect clients to leading insight on hot topics.
Early days but promising signs
According to Professor Bell, it’s a case of “so far, so good” in developing the vaccine.
“We’ve vaccinated about 1,000 people,” he told our audience. “We’re now measuring those people’s antibodies, and I suspect they’ll have very good antibodies, and (we) are going to move within the next week on to the phase three study, which will be about another 10,000 people.
“We’re concentrating on older age groups, because that’s the vulnerable population, but also on healthcare workers and a variety of groups that are more likely to get the disease.”
Working faster than ever imagined
Professor Bell added, “The strategy will be to get efficacy data by the end of June, and then try to get a phase three study done by the end of August so we can get regulatory approval in September and start vaccinating then.”
But he stressed that this timeline was “the best case scenario” for dealing with the “ghastly disease”.
“On average it takes eight years to make a vaccine against a virus. We’ve been at it for eight weeks,” he said. “This is really hard and more vaccine candidates fail than ever succeed.”
Existing drugs might help
The audience heard that existing drugs could have a role to play in helping people deal with COVID-19.
Professor Bell told us, “We’ve developed a programme here – we know enough about how the disease works and what is likely to kill you with the disease. And we have drugs that can interfere with those processes. They weren’t designed for COVID at all, they were designed for something completely different.
“We’re hoping to test about 20 different drugs, and some of them I think are very, very promising. What would be really great would be to have a drug that even just took the edge off the severity of this disease.”
Existing immunity also providing protection
He also said there may be a fair amount of existing immunity among people providing some protection.
“We may actually have more existing, adaptive immunities to this virus than we would expect,” he said. “There may even be enough existing immunity to prevent a second wave.”
He added, “If you look at the results of a robust antibody test we’ve seen, only about six per cent of the population in the UK has had this virus, which is very strange for a virus that is effectively more infectious than the flu.
“Then there were a couple of cases on cruise liners where quite a lot of people didn’t get infected, but you would have expected everyone to get infected because they were all boxed in.”
More health facilities needed
When asked about the UK’s need to take in medicines from overseas, Professor Bell said there was still work to be done to make Britain more self-sufficient.
“We don’t make antibodies at scale, we don’t make other biologics at scale, we have no vaccine manufacturing capabilities,” he said. “This is not a good place to be.
“This government and future governments need to think about health security. It is a political reality that no government will be able to produce vaccines and give it to somebody else before they service their own population. It is what it is.
“We can all talk great thoughts about how we’ll all put it in a pot and we’ll all share it out equally. Not a reality. I think we’ve got to have our own capabilities onshore."