Nobody can know where the first safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19 will come from, warned one of the UK’s leading medical experts, as the trials of the frontrunner, from Oxford University, were put on hold.
The Oxford vaccine appeared to be storming ahead, amid hopes it would have the data to get it approved by a regulator before the end of the year. Last month, Donald Trump was said to be considering pushing for it to be fast-tracked in the US before the presidential election in November.
But the phase 3 trials, the final stage involving tens of thousands of people, have been paused because of the illness of one of the UK volunteers. Studies are also under way in the US, Brazil and South Africa, with a view to getting a quicker answer because of the greater numbers of cases in those countries.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, the head of Wellcome and an infectious diseases specialist, said vaccine development “is an inherently risky endeavour, and you cannot back on a single vaccine candidate. You have to have a portfolio, you have to be pragmatic that not all of these vaccines in late stage development will make it through.”
Safety is absolutely critical, he said. Large-scale trials and follow-up of people who have been vaccinated after licensing were vital.
Farrar, who is also a member of the government’s Sage scientific advisory body, called for scientists worldwide to share their data, as Oxford/AstraZeneca has. It is “absolutely critical that we know what’s happening in the US and Europe in China and Russia and everywhere else, developing these vaccines”.
The UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, said he was not overly concerned about the decision by the pharmaceuticals firm AstraZeneca to halt vaccine trials, he said, adding that it had already overcome a similar delay.
“This is a normal part of a vaccine development that, when you find a problem, the system is paused while you investigate that particular problem,” he told LBC radio.
“What it underlines is that we won’t bring forward a vaccine unless it is safe, no matter how enthusiastic I am for a vaccine.”
Hancock told Sky News: “It is obviously a challenge to this particular vaccine. It’s not actually the first time it has happened to the Oxford vaccine and it’s a standard process in clinical trials.”
Asked if it was a setback, Hancock said: “Not necessarily – it depends on what they find when they do the investigation. There was a pause earlier in the summer and that was resolved without a problem.”
He told LBC the UK had “other irons in the fire”. The government has ordered 340m doses of six different vaccines, which was “far more” than was needed for the UK population, said Hancock.
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