Oxford offers best hope for Covid-19 vaccine this year, MPs told

University is leading rivals but first drugs may not work fully, says vaccine taskforce chair

Oxford University is leading the world in developing a vaccine against Covid-19 and offers the best chance of having something protective against the virus as we go into winter, MPs have been told.

Kate Bingham, chair of the UK vaccine taskforce, said she expected to have a vaccine “early next year” from one or more of the candidates, although it was possible the first vaccines might only “help alleviate the symptoms” so that people have a less serious bout of disease, rather than fully protecting them.

Asked whether the UK would have to face the winter without a vaccine, Bingham said the best chance lay with the vaccine being trialled by Prof Sarah Gilbert from Oxford University, which is ahead of the rest.

“I hope we can improve on those timelines and come to your rescue,” Gilbert told the science and technology committee but would not be drawn on how much sooner the vaccine might be ready.

Physical distancing had reduced the numbers of people getting infected in the UK, which was good news, she said, but made it harder to trial a vaccine so they were now also testing it in Brazil and South Africa, where the case numbers are high. Astra Zeneca, the company that has partnered with Oxford, is to start a trial with 30,000 people in the US.

Bingham said Gilbert’s team was a long way ahead of the field. “The Oxford study will have likely vaccinated all their efficacy subjects before any of the other vaccines actually start their big efficacy trials. So that just gives you a scale of how far ahead they are versus the other companies,” she said.

Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, criticised the lack of pandemic planning in the UK and particularly the absence of manufacturing capacity for vaccines.

“I don’t think we had particularly confident or extensive planning for any pandemic, to be honest,” he told the committee. “People occasionally talked about flu but very little was done. I think we weren’t really ready for a pandemic in the UK. And I think that’s something that we need to pay very close attention to.”

The UK had shown its ability to be ahead of the rest of the world in scientific research and clinical trials for vaccines, he said.

“They didn’t come from a pandemic planning strategy, held by PHE [Public Health England]. They came from strong academic science and have been allowed to flourish in this environment and, without them, we’d be in real trouble.

“So I think we have to go back and think about how our healthcare system and our public health system thinks much more strategically about how we get ready for pandemics, rather than try to react after they’ve arrived on the doorstep, because I think that’s where the problem was.”

Bell said the UK was “pretty complacent” about its manufacturing capacity for vaccines before the pandemic.

“Our vaccine manufacturing capability was allowed to drift and was pretty lamentable at the beginning of this,” he said. “You don’t want to rely on importing vaccine from the US because you’re not going to get it at this stage.”

This pandemic was “not a one-off” that would not recur for centuries, he said.

“Since 2000 we’ve had eight close calls, which should have made us wake up. We’ve had three flu epidemics or near-flu epidemics, two Sars episodes, one Mers episode, Zika and Ebola, and any one of those could have blown up to be exactly what we’ve got now, so this needs become part of our national health security infrastructure.”

He said it would be important to immunise as many vulnerable and older people as possible against flu before the winter. At the moment Australia, which usually experiences first the strains of flu the UK can expect, is not having a bad season.

“But then there are these reports coming out of China about a new flu strain, which is a swine flu strain, which always worry you, because many of these strains do emerge out of China,” Bell said.

“Whatever happens is likely to happen through the autumn, getting into the winter, and we’ll have a whole new set of other respiratory viruses floating around and if we happen to have a bad flu season, it will cause lots of trouble and there will be a real challenge, you know doing diagnostics separating the flu from the Covid patients doing all that kind of stuff. So, so we need to be on the front foot.”

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