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Humans to be deliberately infected with Covid in UK to speed up vaccine

A scientist at work during a visit by Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge to the manufacturing laboratory where a vaccine against COVID-19 has been produced at the Oxford Vaccine Group's facility at the Churchill Hospital on June 24, 2020 in Oxford, England. Trials began on 23rd April, with ten thousand people across the UK in the process of being vaccinated in the latest study to assess the potential success of the treatment, with the UK Government providing £84 million for the University of Oxford to develop and manufacture its coronavirus vaccine and a patient lying on a hospital bed hooked up to a ventilator.
The group of 90 participants will be aged 18 to 30 and will be closely monitored (Picture: Getty Images)

Test subjects could be exposed to coronavirus in controlled settings from January in a bid to speed up vaccine development, officials have confirmed.

The Government is backing so-called human challenge studies, whereby a small number of participants who have received jab will be purposefully exposed to Covid-19 to assess its efficacy.

If approved, the UK would become the first country to deliberately infect people with the disease as part of a vaccination trial.

The group of 90 participants will be aged 18 to 30 and will be carefully monitored to assess how the vaccine works and any possible side effects.

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It is hoped trials will start in January, with results expected by May 2021, pending approval from regulatory bodies and ethics committees.

The Government announced that it is investing £33.6 million to back the studies in partnership with Imperial College London, hVIVO and the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.

The aim of the research will initially be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause Covid-19 infection in small groups of healthy young people, who are at lowest risk of harm.

Photo released by the University of Oxford blood samples from coronavirus vaccine trials are handled inside the Jenner Institute in Oxford, England Thursday June 25, 2020. Scientists at Oxford University say their experimental coronavirus vaccine has been shown in an early trial to prompt a protective immune response in hundreds of people who got the shot. In research published Monday July 20, 2020 in the journal Lancet, scientists said that they found their experimental COVID-19 vaccine produced a dual immune response in people aged 18 to 55.
It is hoped the ‘human challenge’ study will help speed up vaccine development (Picture: AP)

The studies will be carried out under strict conditions at the Royal Free Hospital in London and will feature healthy young adults, carefully selected by researchers, who will be compensated for their involvement. After the initial study, the volunteers will be tracked for a year.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: ‘We are doing everything we can to fight coronavirus, including backing our best and brightest scientists and researchers in their hunt for a safe and effective vaccine.

‘The funding announced today for these ground-breaking but carefully controlled studies marks an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines which will ultimately help in beginning our return to normal life.’

Lead researcher on the human challenge study Dr Chris Chiu, from Imperial College London, said: ‘Our number one priority is the safety of the volunteers. No study is completely risk-free, but the Human Challenge Programme partners will be working hard to ensure we make the risks as low as we possibly can.

‘The UK’s experience and expertise in human challenge trials, as well as in wider Covid-19 science, will help us tackle the pandemic, benefiting people in the UK and worldwide.’

The Government’s Vaccine Taskforce chairwoman Kate Bingham said: ‘This research will improve understanding of the virus, the biology of the disease, the signs that a person is protected from infection or developing the disease, the vaccine candidates, and will help in making decisions about research, that it is carried out safely and based on up-to-date evidence.

‘There is much we can learn in terms of immunity, the length of vaccine protection, and reinfection.’

England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said: ‘First, for the many vaccines still in the mid-stages of development, human challenge studies may help pick out the most promising ones to take forward into larger phase three trials.

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‘Second, for vaccines which are in the late stages of development and already proven to be safe and effective through phase three studies, human challenge studies could help us further understand if the vaccines prevent transmission as well as preventing illness.’

A scientist at work during a visit by Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge to the manufacturing laboratory where a vaccine against COVID-19 has been produced at the Oxford Vaccine Group's facility at the Churchill Hospital on June 24, 2020 in Oxford, England. Trials began on 23rd April, with ten thousand people across the UK in the process of being vaccinated in the latest study to assess the potential success of the treatment, with the UK Government providing £84 million for the University of Oxford to develop and manufacture its coronavirus vaccine.
Volunteers would be tracked for a year after the initial study (Picture: Getty Images)

It comes after the Government’s chief scientific adviser warned it is ‘unlikely’ that a coronavirus vaccine will stop the disease completely.

Sir Patrick Vallance said the only disease to be completely eradicated is smallpox.

Giving evidence to the joint Commons and Lords National Security Strategy Committee, he said future treatment of Covid-19 may become more like seasonal flu.

Sir Patrick said that, over the next few months, it will become clear whether there are any vaccines that do protect, and how long for.

He added that, while a number of candidates cause an immune response, only phase three trials will indicate whether they stop people from being infected.

Last week Professor Van-Tam said a potential vaccine, produced by Oxford University and Astra Zeneca – could enter the third stage of clinical trials in December and be rolled out just after Christmas.

In a briefing to MPs, he said: ‘We aren’t light years away from it.

‘It isn’t a totally unrealistic suggestion that we could deploy a vaccine soon after Christmas. That would have a significant impact on hospital admissions and deaths.’

So far the Government has signed agreements for 350 million doses from six different developers, with the Oxford project currently winning the race.

Meanwhile ‘hundreds of thousands’ of jabs by Pfizer have already been manufactured at its plant in Puurs, Belgium, according to the Mail On Sunday.

Vaccines rolling off production line
‘Hundreds of thousands’ of vaccines rolling off a production line in Belgium (Picture:Pfizer)

The US pharmaceutical giant’s UK boss Ben Osborn said: ‘It was great to see the first vial coming off the manufacturing line.

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‘It just brought a tremendous smile to my face to see all of this work actually result in a product.’

Up to 100 million doses could be made available this year, of which 40 million will end up in the UK.

The company is reportedly planning to manufacture 1.3 billion jabs in 2021. The jab is currently being tested on 44,000 people. Everyone is expected to need at least two doses.

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at [email protected].

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