British government enlists AstraZeneca, BIA for new pandemic vaccine task force

A man wearing a mask on the London Underground due to coronavirus
(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth via Newscred)

While more than 70 vaccine candidates are speeding their way through the early cycles of development, the British government has set up a new task force aimed at boosting the development of a shot against COVID-19—and it's enlisting AstraZeneca to help.

The British drugmaker will join representatives from government, academia and industry including the government’s so-called "life sciences champion," Sir John Bell, as well as the Wellcome Trust.

Sir Patrick Vallance, former GSK R&D head and now the U.K. government’s chief scientific adviser, will lead the task force. The group is also working closely with the Bioindustry Association (BIA), which represents biotechs in the U.K. and has itself set up an industry-led group aimed at boosting vaccine development and manufacturing.

There is a traditional public-private deal here, with the government looking to “support efforts to rapidly develop a coronavirus vaccine as soon as possible by providing industry and research institutions with the resources and support needed,” it said in a statement.

This includes reviewing regulations and scaling up manufacturing so that when a vaccine becomes available, it “can be produced quickly and in mass quantities.”

The government also announced 21 new coronavirus research projects set to benefit from a share of around £14 million in government funding.

There are already dozens of treatments in the works, both experimental and repurposed, to help patients already ill and in hospital. But data on these have been patchy at best, with still many more months and more data to be collated before researchers can determine whether they can help.

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One of these drugs is a former Ebola candidate from Gilead Sciences, remdesivir, which is currently undergoing clinical tests.

But in the end, a vaccine, or vaccines, will be the predominant factor in finally stopping the spread of this virus without the need for strong lockdowns, experts say—which is why so much weight and money has been thrown behind the vaccine development effort.

It will take time, though: Even at top speed, 18 months would be lightening quick, with some new estimates seeing five years as a more realistic target.

Given how many people around the world—potentially billions—would require a vaccine to create herd immunity, testing will need to be rigorous in order to ensure a vaccine candidate is safe and efficacious. That's not a quick process, nor is manufacturing such huge quantities.

RELATED: Don't count on a COVID-19 vaccine for at least 5 years, says AI-based forecast

Speaking at the British government’s daily virus briefing, business secretary Alok Sharma said the goal was to "make sure a vaccine is made available to the public as quickly as possible".

“We are looking forward, so, when we do make a breakthrough we are ready to manufacture by the millions," he said.

A growing number of biopharmas are seeking a new vaccine, including a recent partnership between Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline. New approaches focusing on mRNA tech from the likes of Moderna, CureVac and BioNTech, partnered with Pfizer, could speed up the normally slow pathway to a working vaccine (but also present many more unknowns longer term).

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