New UK taskforce to help develop and roll out coronavirus vaccine | World news

The government has announced a new vaccines taskforce to help the development of a vaccine for Covid-19 and ensure its rapid production and rollout if one arrives.

The business secretary, Alok Sharma, also gave details of cash grants for work into both vaccines and potential treatments. Among the projects receiving cash is one led by Public Health England (PHE), which hopes to develop an antibody drug, something that has the potential to work as both a prophylactic and a treatment for those infected.

A potential antibody drug could be given as a regular infusion to healthcare workers and other high-risk groups, and would provide protection perhaps over a few weeks or months. It could also be used as a treatment to help people fight off the virus when infected.

Sharma’s announcement, at the daily Downing Street press briefing, focused mainly on the idea of the vaccines taskforce, combining government and industry, which would both coordinate research efforts to develop a vaccine and then seek to ensure it could be provided to people as soon as possible.

Led by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, and Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, the taskforce will also include representatives from the drugs firm AstraZeneca and the Wellcome Trust medical foundation.

“UK scientists are working as fast as they can to find a vaccine that fights coronavirus, saving and protecting people’s lives. We stand firmly behind them in their efforts,” Sharma said.

“The vaccine taskforce is key to coordinating efforts to rapidly accelerate the development and manufacture of a potential new vaccine, so we can make sure it is widely available to patients as soon as possible.”

The taskforce will have the brief of first helping provide research groups and industry with support and resources to help develop a vaccine, and then when one arises, to boost manufacturing, if needed reviewing regulations to ensure it can be provided widely and at speed.

The consensus among pandemic experts is that the mass use of a reliable vaccine against coronavirus is likely to be the only way governments around the world can fully ease distancing measures.

Work is taking place in numerous countries, with some human trials already starting. Vallance has maintained that a year to 18 months is a “reasonable” timeframe for a vaccine to be widely available.

Some teams are aiming to move faster than this. Prof Adrian Hill, director of the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, whose vaccine candidate is expected to enter human trials this month, said the team hoped to be able to confirm efficacy by September and is already scaling up manufacturing. “The aim is to have at least a million doses [available] by around about September and move even faster from there,” he said.

The government has already announced £250m in funding towards worldwide efforts to develop a vaccine, with £10.5m allocated to six projects in March. On Friday, another £14m was allocated to 21 new projects, based on both vaccines and treatments.

Among these is funding for the possible new antibody drug, being developed by PHE, billed as intended to “offer protection against infection and disease progression of coronavirus”.

A £3.2m grant will go to a study called Virus Watch, conducted by University College London, that will test 10,000 participants every time they report any symptoms that could be linked to Covid-19 and trace participants’ movements using mobile apps. Other research funded will look at the impact of Covid-19 on pregnancy outcomes and track the rates of infection, through antibody tests, in children and teenagers, who have made up only a tiny fraction of confirmed cases.

There has been considerable focus on drugs usually used to treat malaria as a possible way to alleviate coronavirus symptoms. Some of the grant money will go to a clinical trial led by Oxford University in which more than 3,000 patients over the age of 65 presenting at GP surgeries will be given the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to see whether it reduces the need for them to go to hospital or speeds up recovery.

Hydroxychloroquine, also known by its brand name, Plaquenil, is a drug used to treat malaria. It is a less toxic version of chloroquine, another malaria drug, which itself is related to quinine, an ingredient in tonic water.

A widely publicized study in France where 40 coronavirus patients were given hydroxychloroquine, with more than half experiencing the clearing of their airways within three to six days has led to it being touted in some quarters as a potential cure for Covid-19. This apparent improvement is important as it would curtail the timeframe in which infected people could spread Covid-19 to others.

However, experts have warned that the study is small and lacks sufficient rigour to be classed as evidence of a potential treatment. The French study followed work by Chinese researchers which suggested that hydroxychloroquine can slow infections by blocking the virus behind Covid-19 from entering cells in the body. But more recent, albeit small-scale, research from China has shown that patients who were treated with the drugs fought off coronavirus no more quickly than those who didn’t get it. Indeed, one patient given hydroxychloroquine severely worsened in condition while four patients on the medicine developed signs of liver damage and experienced diarrhoea.

Regardless of these findings, any drug being used for a certain purpose before full clinical trials are completed is, by definition, untested and unproven. It’s too early to say if hydroxychloroquine can have a major benefit or not. The European Medicines Agency, an agency of the EU, has said hydroxychloroquine should not be taken by coronavirus patients except for clinical trials or emergency use programs.

Oliver Milman

Vallance said the taskforce would “ensure that any potential coronavirus vaccine, when available, can be produced quickly and at scale so it can be made available to the public as quickly as possible”.

Source link