James Drake remains optimistic as trials for the University of Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine resume.
Since COVID-19 made its first appearance in January, scientists and researchers around the world have been testing and trialling around 200 vaccine candidates, of which at least 15 are now in human trials. Amongst these trials, the University of Oxford’s vaccine is one of the most likely to be ready first. Here, philanthropist James Drake offers insightful comments into the development of the university’s vaccine and when we can expect the NHS to offer treatment throughout the UK. James Drake is a widely recognised philanthropist who funds major scientific research into the connections between head injuries and neurodegenerative disease.
How do vaccines work?
Vaccines stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies and fight off a disease by introducing an inactive form of the disease bacteria into the body. Once the immune system has fought off the bacteria and developed the necessary antibodies, the person becomes immune to the disease.
However, developing a vaccine is a long, complex process. Before scientists can even begin clinical trials, they must test the trial vaccine on cells and sometimes animals. The vaccine can only progress to the safety trials if it produces an immune response, i.e. if the animals produce antibodies.
How do vaccine trials work?
Following the first phase of vaccine development, scientists can progress to safety trials. During these trials, scientists test the vaccine on a small number of people. This allows scientists to gauge the most effective dosage and identify whether the vaccine produces an immune response in humans. If effective, scientists can then test the vaccine on a larger group of people, often hundreds of participants in different age categories. Where there is a time pressure, such as with COVID-19, scientists may be able to combine the first and second phases of trialling.
If the vaccine still proves successful, scientists can deliver the jab to thousands of people alongside a placebo in a third testing phase. This phase simulates the mass adoption of the vaccine. The larger the sample size of participants, the more likely it is that the trial will result in the identification of rare side effects. This is the stage that the University of Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine has reached. If the vaccine passes this stage, national regulators can then approve it for distribution.
Some researchers believe that we will have a COVID-19 vaccine by summer 2021, though this would be the fastest that humans have ever developed a vaccine upon discovering a new pathogen. Scientists emphasise that rushing a vaccine could be dangerous and that laboratories shouldn’t push to have a vaccine ready by a particular date, such as Donald Trump’s hope to distribute a vaccine across America ahead of November’s U.S. election.
‘Vaccine creation can take many years, but in this instance, the world is working together to release a COVID-19 vaccine as quickly as possible. The Oxford Uni vaccine is one of eight vaccines that have reached trial phase, with a further 24 in early stages,’ says James Drake.
The University of Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccination
Earlier this year, the University of Oxford developed the trial vaccine in collaboration with AstraZeneca and cleared phases one and two of human trials. However, a UK participant suffered an adverse reaction during the third phase, which involved testing a larger number of participants. As a result, the university paused the trials on September 3. However, the participant’s reaction may not have been caused by the vaccine, and, on September 12, the university announced that the clinical trials will resume.
A representative from the university said that the pause had allowed time for a ‘review of safety data by an independent safety review committee and the national regulators. Globally, some 18,000 individuals have received study vaccines as part of the trial. In large trials such as this, it is expected that some participants will become unwell, and every case must be carefully evaluated to ensure careful assessment of safety.’
Before the University of Oxford’s setback, the trial results showed that vaccines tested on 1,077 British adults induced effective antibody and T-cell responses. The university predicts that these responses may improve further after a booster vaccine, which would overcome the issue of antibodies fading. The university is also now running human trials in America.
‘The drug giant [AstraZeneca] said it is “routine action” to pause trials whenever there is an unexplained illness among participants,’ adds James Drake. ‘This comes after nine major pharma companies, including AstraZeneca, signed a petition committing to not rush the process of developing a vaccine for the virus. The “vaccine race” was always going to be unpredictable, such as the nature of securing a viable vaccine for COVID-19. The hope is still there that we can get a working vaccine in the coming months.’
When can Brits expect access to a vaccine?
On September 14, the UK government announced that it had partnered with the vaccine company Valneva SE and secured a supply of 60 million COVID-19 vaccinations that are currently in development in France. The vaccine candidate, VLA2001, is set to enter clinical trials at the end of the year. The vaccine partnership is worth around £433 million, and the vaccines are due for completion in late 2021. The government may be able to access an additional 130 million vaccines between 2022 and 2025. Regulatory approval will follow any successful outcomes achieved in late 2021. The UK will also invest in Valneva’s manufacturing facility in Livingston, Scotland, to scale the vaccine production.
‘Having visited Valneva just last month, I have seen first-hand the incredible work they are doing to develop and manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine,’ said Alok Sharma, the UK Business Secretary. ‘This new agreement could help us vaccinate millions of people across the country, as well as help create a UK vaccine manufacturing facility to speed up access to a potential COVID-19 candidate and boost the country’s resilience against future pandemics.’
Britain has also signed deals for alternative vaccines, totalling at over 340 million doses. If all of these vaccines are effective, Britain will have enough vaccines for every UK citizen to receive five doses. Scientists predict that two doses of most vaccines will be effective.
‘The UK have done a fantastic job in securing vaccines. What the government now needs to focus on is the distribution of the vaccines. Do governments distribute privately or via a public health service? And who should receive the first batch of doses? They must establish a thorough vaccine framework, to ensure the distribution is efficient and inclusive.’ says James Drake.
Dexamethasone: An alternative COVID-19 treatment
Aside from vaccinations, British scientists have also found that the common steroid dexamethasone can significantly reduce the risk of COVID-19-induced death. Boris Johnson describes this finding as a ‘remarkable achievement’ and ‘the biggest breakthrough yet’. The government has already stockpiled dexamethasone to treat 200,000 patients, plus supplies for a second wave of the virus. Dexamethasone was originally used to treat asthma, arthritis, and allergies. A full course of treatment costs £5 and is already aiding the recovery of many. ‘These findings are encouraging, and I believe there are a number of precautions we can take, to protect our organs and vitalities. I for one, have been taking resveratrol, a strong antioxidant for many years. Although, there is no evidence-based data to prove its positive effects, I am a great believer.’ says James Drake.
About James Drake
As the founder of the Drake Foundation (DF), James Drake provides extensive funding for essential research into concussion studies. These studies examine the short-term and long-term impacts that concussions and repetitive head injuries can have, particularly on former sports professionals. Since launching the charitable foundation in 2014, James has injected over £2 million into the diagnosis and management of sports-related concussions.
James is also the founder of the Future Science Group (FSG), a progressive imprint that publishes 15 open-access journals, 20 hybrid-model journals, eBooks, and articles, each of which covers the latest trends in clinical medicine. With a strong focus on advanced medical, scientific, and biotechnical research, the Future Science Group continuously develops collaboration and communication between researchers, clinicians, and decision-makers.
Furthermore, James also offers scholarships to budding musicians through the Drake Calleja Trust. The Trust enables outstanding accompanists, vocalists, and instrumentalists from underprivileged backgrounds to purchase the instruments, recording sessions, competition entries, and masterclasses that they need to kickstart musical careers.