When will a Covid-19 vaccine be ready in the UK? Latest updates from around the world 

Since coronavirus emerged in January almost 200 vaccine candidates have been put into development, with at least 15 in human trials. 

Vaccines undergoing trials at Oxford University and in Germany are the most likely candidates to be ready this year, experts have said, but there are also candidates being tested in the US, Russia and China.

However, the head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce has warned that a jab is likely to be only 50 per cent effective. Kate Bingham said any vaccine capable of immunising against the coronavirus will likely only be as effective as the flu vaccine. 

“The vaccines we have for flu are about 50 per cent effective, and they are annual shots, based on the strain that emerges each summer which we then get vaccinated for the winter,” Ms Bingham said. “So, I think it would be fair to say, we shouldn’t assume it’s going to be for the moment, better than a flu vaccine.

She also said that there is a “slim” chance that the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine could be ready before Christmas.

A vaccine is important, because – as the Chief Scientific Officer for England, Sir Patrick Vallance, noted – “something under 8 per cent of the population” have been infected and/or have antibodies. It may be higher in the cities, as high as 17 per cent, he said, but added that the vast majority of us do not have immunity. Even those who do have antibodies will probably see their immunity diminish over time. 

There is no herd immunity yet

Here’s everything you need to know about what vaccines are being developed, the latest news, and when a jab might be ready.

What’s the latest news in the hunt for a vaccine?

The Imperial trial is being run by hVivo, a spin-off company from Queen Mary University of London. Already roughly 2,000 people have signed up to take part in challenge studies in Britain through the group 1Day Sooner. 

Those testing the vaccine will be given the jab and will then wait a month for antibodies to build. The volunteers will then be exposed to the virus.

Currently, vaccines are tested at population level, so scientists look to see whether a smaller percentage of people are infected than would be expected in the vaccine arm of the trial compared to a control group. 

However worldwide lockdowns have meant that virus in the community has been very low in recent months, and scientists have struggled to get enough data to know whether their vaccines are working.

Oxford University has been forced to move some of its vaccine testing to South America and South Africa, although it is expecting results back soon.

How do vaccines work, how long do they take to make, and why?

A vaccine stimulates your body’s immune system to produce antibodies and fight off a disease. It does this by introducing into your body the germs that cause disease. Your immune system then fights off these germs, developing the antibodies that then make you immune. Vaccines, therefore, can be potent weapons in preventing disease.

However, developing a vaccine is complicated. While researchers are confident that a vaccine could be ready by the summer of 2021, that would be the fastest humans have ever gone from seeing a brand new pathogen to developing a vaccine against it.

Here’s the journey a vaccine takes, from initial development to approval:

  • Before clinical testing: At this stage, scientists test the vaccine on cells and then give the virus to animals. If the vaccine produces an immune response – ie if antibodies are produced – it can move to the next stage
  • Phase 1 testing: In these tests, also known as safety trials, the vaccine is tested on a small number of people. It is in this stage that scientists work out the dosage and if the jab produces an immune response in humans
  • Phase 2: Now the vaccine is tested on a lot more people, with hundreds of participants split into groups, often by age. Sometimes, to speed up the process, phases 1 and 2 can be combined.
  • Phase 3: In the third phase of testing, the vaccine is delivered to thousands of people. The vaccine runs alongside a placebo. This phase is extremely important because it simulates mass adoption of the vaccine; the larger sample size of participants means that the trial can find out rare potential side effects of the vaccine that might not be present in smaller groups. The Oxford and Imperial vaccines are currently at this stage.
  • Approval: If the vaccine passes through these stages, it can be approved by national regulators. Then it can be distributed. Scientists would continue to monitor people who receive the vaccine, in case it is not safe. However, researchers have expressed concern that approval could be rushed without adequate scrutiny – as with China and Russia’s vaccines – or that emergency authorisation of a coronavirus vaccine could be dangerous. Approval is also subject to political pressures, such as President Trump’s hope to get a vaccine distributed to Americans before he faces the polls on November 3.

Having to satisfy the safety criteria in each of these stages is why developing a vaccine is such a long and complicated process.

What’s the latest on Oxford?

Oxford’s vaccine trial was halted on September 8 after a participant in the UK had an adverse reaction.

The vaccine, developed with AstraZeneca, cleared phases one and two human trials and progressed to the third phase where it was being tested on a larger number of participants.

But the adverse reaction experienced by the participant in the vaccine trial may not have been caused by the experimental vaccine itself, it has since been claimed.

Oxford announced on September 12 that clinical trials of its coronavirus vaccine will resume in the UK. However, human trials of the Oxford and AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine are yet to resume in the US over concerns the jab may cause adverse reactions.

Before that, testing had been positive. The full results of the Oxford trials, published on July 20, showed that initial trials on 1,077 British adults found that the vaccine induced strong antibody and T-cell responses, which may improve further after a booster jab.

The discovery is promising because separate studies have suggested that antibodies may fade away within months while T-cells can stay in circulation for years.

What about the Imperial College vaccine?

Researchers at Imperial have developed a candidate which, when injected, will deliver the genetic instructions to muscle cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike surface protein. This should provoke an immune response and create immunity to the virus.

Rather than giving people a weakened form of the illness, the Imperial vaccine instead uses synthetic strands of genetic code based on the virus’ genetic material. 

Another vaccine candidate is being developed by the University of Cambridge which hopes to start clinical trials in the autumn after it received £1.9 million in funding from the British government.

The Cambridge candidate, DIOS-CoVax2, is DNA based. Computer-generated antigen structures are encoded by synthetic genes, which can then re-programme the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against coronavirus.

What is a ‘challenge’ trial?

Volunteers could soon be deliberately infected with coronavirus in trials to speed up a vaccine and discover if people are protected if they have already had the disease, in what is known as a “challenge trial”.

In a groundbreaking trial, scheduled to begin in January at the Royal Free Hospital in London, patients will be inoculated with a vaccine developed by Imperial College, and then exposed to coronavirus.

“Challenge trials” are controversial, but can give a quick answer about whether a vaccine is effective and several Nobel laureates have called for them to take place.

Oxford University is also intending to use a similar “challenge trial” to test whether people have protective immunity from the disease if they have been previously infected.

Both groups of researchers are currently hunting for a “salvage therapy” that would be given as a last resort if the vaccine did not work before they can begin the trials and will need approval. The trials will be funded by the Government.

What deals has Britain signed and will Britons get first access to a vaccine?

Britain’s vaccine deals

On September 14, the Government announced that it had secured the supply of 60 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine candidate being developed in France. 

Valneva SE, a specialist vaccine company, announced a “major partnership” with the UK worth around £433 million. The doses will be provided in the second half of 2021.  

There is an option for the Government to access a further 130 million doses between 2022 and 2025, the company said.

Britain had already signed deals for more than 340 million doses of a vaccine. The total stockpile means that — if the vaccines all work — there will be enough for every person in Britain to have five doses. Most of the vaccines require two to be effective.

Britain is preparing to revise laws to allow the emergency use of any effective coronavirus vaccine before it is fully licensed — but only if it meets required safety standards.

The UK has also joined Covax, the UN scheme pooling funds from wealthier countries and non-profits to develop two billion doses of an effective, approved and equally distributed vaccine by the end of the 2021.

The UK had previously announced £48 million to finance Covax vaccines for lower-income countries. The World Health Organisation said last month that 172 countries and multiple candidate vaccines were engaged in talks about joining the initiative.

How does Russia’s vaccine work?

Vladimir Putin has announced that Russia has approved the world’s first coronavirus vaccine.

Moscow has hailed the speedy development of the vaccine as evidence of its medical prowess, but scientists have raised concerns about a lack of testing and transparency. 

According to a study in the Lancet, Russia’s “fast-track” Covid-19 vaccine is safe and produces two forms of immune response against the virus. However, the new study of two early-phase trials reveals that the drug has so far only been tested on a total of 76 people – and not by the most rigorous of methods.

The vaccine has been named “Sputnik V”, drawing comparisons to the Cold War space race.

The Telegraph has revealed that Britain is likely to reject a vaccine from Russia, amid serious concerns over its trial processes.

Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Russian president was considering whether to be vaccinated.

Is there vaccine research being done in the US?

Donald Trump has said the US would start mass production of any vaccines developed before they are fully approved so that they can be quickly distributed once rubber-stamped. 

The president has accused the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of preventing pharmaceutical companies from finding people to test coronavirus vaccines on. Mr Trump suggested “deep state” elements at the FDA wanted to delay a vaccine until after the election.

Only half of Americans are now willing to take a vaccine for Covid-19, a significant drop due to growing concerns the approvals process will be rushed.

The US has already signed contracts worth billions of dollars to distribute the vaccine.

Moderna’s vaccine trial showed promising early results after the candidate reportedly produced protective antibodies in a small group of healthy volunteers. A third trial involving thousands of people started in July. Even if the trials are successful Moderna’s vaccine would not be available until between January and June 2021. 

On August 11, Mr Trump said his government will purchase 100 million doses of Moderna’s experimental vaccine.

Some scientists have expressed concerns that the FDA, which would need to approve any potential vaccine, could be pressured by the White House into clearing an unproven drug before election day on November 3.

The first coronavirus vaccine that aims to protect people with a single shot has entered the final stages of testing in the US in an international trial that will recruit up to 60,000 participants. The experimental vaccine being developed by pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson is the fourth vaccine to enter the large, Phase 3 trials in the US.

On October 12, Johnson & Johnson’s trial was temporarily halted because one of its participants had become sick.

Is China working on a vaccine?

China has moved up a gear in the pivotal area of vaccine diplomacy, with a string of positive announcements from Beijing.

SinoVac, the Chinese pharmaceutical firm, says its vaccine is nearly ready and will be rolled-out across the world early next year.  

Sinovac is one of four Chinese vaccines in last-stage human trials, a higher number than any other nation in the world

However, some are concerned about the quality of the vaccines and that they are being used to gain political leverage.

Beijing was so confident in its homegrown inoculations that authorities had been administering vaccines for more than a month before clinical studies conclude, authorities revealed at the beginning of September.

The Chinese government has provided sparse details on which vaccines are being given to people, and how many have been vaccinated, leading to concerns participation may be forced and not voluntary. 

The SinoVac vaccine, which involves two shots administered two to four weeks apart, has so far been given to 3,000 of the company’s employees in an effort to demonstrate safety. 30,000 worldwide have so far received the vaccine during clinical trials.

Beijing has been particularly supportive of the SinoVac project, building a new production facility capable of producing 300 million doses per year. SinoVac CEO Yin Weidong has said he hopes the vaccine will be used by people all over the world, including those in “the US and EU”.

However, it remains to be seen if the vaccine will pass strict western safety protocols.

Experts are starting to wonder whether China’s strategy of focusing on “old school” vaccine technologies may eventually prove to be more prudent.

China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a state-run vaccine company, said in mid-September that early data from its phase three trials showed that its two leading immunisations were effective in preventing volunteers contracting Covid-19 – the first time a claim of efficacy has been made.

A Chinese vaccine candidate, called BBIBP-CorV,  based on inactivated coronavirus is safe and elicits an antibody response, preliminary results have shown.

The research, published in the journal Lancet Infectious Disease, was not designed to assess efficacy of the vaccine, however, so it is not possible to say whether the antibody responses induced by the vaccine are sufficient to protect from coronavirus infection.

Dexamethasone & other treatments being trialled

The world’s first coronavirus treatment that significantly reduces the risk of death is being given to NHS patients following groundbreaking trials by British scientists.

In a breakthrough described by Boris Johnson as a “remarkable achievement”, the common steroid dexamethasone was shown to radically improve the chances of survival for the most ill patients.

On June 16, the Prime Minister hailed the result as the “biggest breakthrough yet” in the treatment of coronavirus, both in Britain and globally.

The Government has been stockpiling dexamethasone since March in case the trials were successful. There are already supplies for 200,000 patients, and enough to cope with any second wave of the virus.

The drug – commonly used to treat arthritis, severe allergies and asthma – costs just £5 for a full course of treatment and is expected to have a major impact on the pandemic.

Alongside vaccine development, doctors are trialling existing drugs for viruses such as Ebola, malaria and HIV. Early results seem promising but, until full clinical trials have been concluded, doctors cannot be certain that the drugs are effective. 

AstraZeneca has started a Phase 1 clinical trial of its drug AZD7442, a combination of two monoclonal antibodies, for the prevention and treatment of Covid-19. The trial, funded by the US Government, will include up to 48 healthy participants in the UK aged 18 to 55.

Australian biotech company Ena Respiratory has said that a nasal spray it is developing to improve the human immune system to fight the common cold and flu significantly reduced the growth of coronavirus in a recent study on animals.

A study on ferrets showed the product, dubbed INNA-051, which could be used complementary to vaccines, lowered the levels of the virus that causes Covid-19 by up to 96 per cent, the company said. The study was led by British government agency Public Health England.

Ena Respiratory said it would be ready to test INNA-051 in human trials in less than four months, subject to successful toxicity studies and regulatory approval.

After he tested positive for coronavirus, Donald Trump was treated with an ‘antibody cocktail’ by Regeneron. The cocktail is an experimental therapy that uses two or more lab-engineered antibodies that is believed to reduce levels of the coronavirus and improve a patient’s symptoms.