Human trials of a potential coronavirus vaccine developed at Oxford University are to begin on Thursday, health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.
And one member of the Oxford team said that if trials are successful, millions of doses of vaccine could be available for use by the autumn of this year.
Speaking at the daily 10 Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock said the government was “throwing everything” at the vaccine drive and announced he was providing £20 million to the Oxford team to help fund their clinical trials, with a further £22.5 million going to researchers at Imperial College London.
Oxford vaccinology professor Sarah Gilbert has said that the inoculation being developed by her team could be ready for use as early as September, despite the search for an effective vaccine normally taking as long as 18 months.
Mr Hancock said: “The team have accelerated that trials process, working with the regulator the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency), who have been brilliant.
“As a result, I can announce that the vaccine from the Oxford project will be trialled in people from this Thursday.”
Mr Hancock said: “In normal times reaching this stage would take years and I’m very proud of the work undertaken so far.
He said that the government will now invest in manufacturing capability so that if either the Oxford or Imperial vaccine works safely, it will be made available to the UK public “as early as humanly possible”.
He cautioned: “Nothing about this process is certain. Vaccine development is a matter of trial and error and trial again. That’s the nature of how vaccines are developed.”
He said he had told Prof Gilbert and Imperial’s Prof Robin Shattock that the government will “back them to the hilt and give them every resource they need to give them the best possible chance of success as soon as possible”.
A member of the Oxford team, Prof Andrew Pollard, told Sky News: “If you had a sailing wind and absolutely nothing goes wrong in all of that complex technical process and you have all the facilities available, you could have millions of doses by the autumn of this year.
“But to the very large scale, there’s a huge technical effort to get there and I think it’s unlikely that that could happen before the end of this year.”
He explained: “If the trials are successful there’s a big technical hurdle to upscale doses of the vaccine to the millions, tens of millions or even billions that would be needed for the world.
“It’s a very different manufacturing process to be able to make such large volumes of vaccine. The capacity to do that round the world is quite limited.”
Prof Pollard said the Oxford project had been given a headstart by work already done on the coronaviruses Sars and Mers following outbreaks in recent years.
“When this new virus emerged there was already work going on in Oxford on Mers coronavirus and a vaccine was being trialled on humans,” he said. “What happened was that the genetic code from the new coronavirus was discovered in January and it was possible to go back to that genetic code and make these new vaccines very rapidly.
“They’ve been developed in the laboratory and taken to a manufacturing facility in Oxford to make the first doses ready for trials.”
Mr Hancock made clear that he believes the UK stands to reap a gigantic economic benefit if it is the first to reach the holy grail of a vaccine which could protect the whole world against Covid-19.
“The upside of being the first country in the world to develop a successful vaccine is so huge that I am throwing everything at it,” he said.
Mr Hancock said: “In the long run the best way to defeat coronavirus is through a vaccine.
“This is a new disease, this is uncertain science, but I’m certain that we will throw everything we’ve got at developing a vaccine.
“The UK is at the forefront of the global effort. We’ve put more money than any other country into the global search for a vaccine. And for all the efforts around the world, two of the leading vaccine developments are taking place here at home, at Oxford and Imperial.
“Both of these promising projects are making rapid progress and I’ve told the scientists leading them that we’ll do everything we can to support them.”
Mr Hancock cautioned that hopes of a breakthrough on a vaccine should not tempt people to become complacent in social distancing measures.
He said: “Coronavirus is a powerful enemy. But I believe that the power of human ingenuity is stronger.
“Every day the science gets better, we gather more information, we understand more about how to defeat the illness.
“But in the meantime there’s one thing we can do – and that is stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”