U.K. gov backs push to start COVID-19 vaccine trial in April

Westminster Bridge in London at sunset
Money given to University of Oxford efforts came out of a £20 million, two-part U.K. government COVID-19 funding call. (IakovKalinin)

The U.K. government has backed a University of Oxford effort to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. Officials handed out the cash to help Sarah Gilbert’s team deliver on its plans to get a vaccine against the novel coronavirus into clinical testing next month.

Gilbert and her collaborators at the university’s Jenner Institute were among the first researchers to start work on a COVID-19 vaccine, leveraging their work on the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus to start preparing for production of clinical trial materials early last month. The fast start has led the group to talk up the prospect of testing the non-replicating viral vector vaccine in humans next month. 

Now, the U.K. government, which is braced for an outbreak that will significantly overwhelm hospital capacity, has committed funding to help Gilbert race into the clinic. The government has put up £2.2 million ($2.6 million) to bankroll preclinical studies, manufacturing and clinical testing.

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Gilbert and her collaborators plan to initially test the vaccine, dubbed ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, in a small number of adults aged 18 to 50 years old, before expanding into children and older people. If the vaccine comes through that early test of safety and efficacy, the team will initiate a larger trial.

Another tranche of government funding went to a team that is working to help scale up production of the COVID-19 vaccine. That University of Oxford group, which is led by Sandy Douglas, is trying to develop a process for making adenovirus vaccines such as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 at a million-dose scale. By applying the approach to ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, the Oxford groups hope to rapidly scale up output of the vaccine to provide protection to high-risk groups while the outbreak is at its worst.

The Gilbert and Douglas projects received around one-quarter of the £10.5 million awarded by the government. A multisite effort to collect samples and data from COVID-19 patients to answer some key questions about the virus and its effects snagged the biggest single award. 

Other projects to net smaller sums included an active, adaptive clinical trial of existing and new drugs that is initially testing lopinavir-ritonavir and low-dose corticosteroids, and a collaboration between teams in London and China to develop an antibody therapy against COVID-19. 

In total, the U.K. government awarded £10.5 million to six projects. The money came out of the £20 million, two-part funding call the government put out at the start of February. The recipients of cash through the second part of the funding call, which covers diagnosing and understanding COVID-19, will be disclosed at a later date.

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