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06th April 2020 Kirsten Lee (2017, Medicine)

Exeter Fellow Dr Catherine Green leads the production of a potential COVID-19 vaccine in Oxford

Third-year medic student Kirsten Lee reports on the pioneering work Exeter Fellow Dr Catherine Green is doing to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Catherine Green, Monsanto Senior Research Fellow at Exeter College, leads the efforts by the Clinical BioManufacturing Facility in Oxford, to begin the production of potential COVID-19 vaccines which will be ready to be used in early human (phase I) clinical trials. Catherine and her team work to transform medical products, designed by scientists at the University, to provide practical solutions, manufacturing them to a high quality, to meet the standards of the regulating body (Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency). Currently, they are collaborating with the Jenner Institute for Vaccine Research and the Oxford Vaccine Group to design and produce the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. The team is now nearing the end of manufacturing and has already begun recruiting patients for their first human trial, which could begin as early as May 2020.

The University of Oxford develops a potential COVID-19 vaccine

Staff at the Jenner Institute, over the past few years, have been developing a platform, to give them the capacity to respond to Disease X, a potential and emerging infectious disease. Dr Green mentioned the team had been preparing for the emergence of a respiratory virus, and therefore they can now utilise and rapidly adapt well-developed models used for other diseases such as MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) and apply it for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, since they are both coronaviruses.

The vaccine uses a chimpanzee adenovirus vector (ChAdOx1), a virus that is able to generate a strong immune response against SARS-CoV-2. The adenovirus is unable to replicate, therefore it is not able to cause an ongoing infection. The adenovirus vector has been used for 10 different viruses in platforms made in Oxford and there has been evidence that the adenovirus vector is tolerable and safe in humans. The vector contains the genetic sequence for the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, an external protein found on the surface of the virus. This protein enables the virus to bind and enter cells to cause infection. The sharing of the genome of SARS-CoV-2 by China, through the World Health Organisation, has been instrumental in designing this vaccine, enabling the spike protein to be rapidly identified.

With a race to find a vaccine for coronavirus, Dr Green assures that “no corners are being cut [as] the last thing you want is to end up with a product that is not safe. No one has ever put the spike protein from this coronavirus into [the vector] before, so we carry out standard safety tests as with any vaccine to check it’s safe in mice and non-human primates and then, in small trials with healthy human volunteers”.

Recruitment for the first COVID-19 vaccine trial begins

Vaccine development began in early January 2020 and the recruitment process has gone live already, aiming to recruit 510 healthy volunteers aged 18-55. Dr Green tells us there has been “a really good response so far”, and the first immunisations within the trial could be carried out in May or June later this year. If the clinical trial proves to be successful, the vaccine will be produced at much larger scales to carry out testing in further age-groups, such as the elderly, who stand to benefit from the vaccine the most.

Normally, vaccine development takes 10-15 years and production of vaccines is only considered after extensive animal and human testing. However, in this current pandemic state, all the steps in a clinical trial programme have been initiated at the same time. Manufacturing has begun, even before the first injection, so when it’s approved, there will be material ready to go. It is high-risk, but the financial support from the Government, the UK Research Innovation Council, CEPI and other donors has enabled such rapid progress. The team is already in contact with the rest of the UK bioindustry and working with manufacturers across the globe, such as in China and India. By initiating contact at such an early stage, they can transfer their technology at a low cost to the other countries and large-scale production can begin once the vaccine’s safety and efficacy are approved.

A Christmas miracle?

The aim of the team in Oxford is to develop a successful vaccine for people who need them, irrespective of ability to pay. The speed in which this vaccine has been designed and produced has been remarkable, with collaboration amongst scientists across the University and a sharing of scientific expertise globally. In addition, the sharing of resources and facilities within the UK to aid development efforts “gives you some hope in humanity that we can pull together and beat this virus”, Dr Green comments. With such incredible collaborative effort amongst scientists across the globe, we can be hopeful for a vaccine against COVID-19 as early as Christmas this year.

For further information on the vaccine, please visit https://covid19vaccinetrial.co.uk/.

 

 

 

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