UK Vaccine Trial Raises Hopes as Deaths Surpass 600,000

The United Nations health agency is pushing all countries to join an effort to make vaccines and drugs to fight Covid-19 cheap enough that the poorest populations in the world can be treated.

Blood samples from coronavirus vaccine trials are handled inside Oxford University’s Jenner Institute on June 25, 2020. (John Cairns, University of Oxford via AP)

(CN) — With the worldwide death toll from the coronavirus pandemic surging past 600,000, researchers in Great Britain said Monday a small vaccine trial was successful in safely triggering an immune response to fight the virus.

The announcement about another potential vaccine provides optimism at a point in the pandemic where the lethal virus seems largely unstoppable as it rages around the world. On Monday, more than 609,000 deaths were reported and the number of detected infections will likely surpass 15 million this week.

The Lancet medical journal published reports that the University of Oxford succeeded to make 1,077 people injected with its vaccine produce antibodies and T-cells capable of fighting the virus. A small group of patients who received a booster shot of the vaccine created a lot more antibodies, researchers said.

The vaccine makers called this trial a success and reported that about 70% of those injected suffered fevers and headaches that can be managed with common paracetamol. The vaccine is made from a genetically engineered virus that causes the common cold in chimpanzees. The vaccine targets the coronavirus’ ability to invade human cells through a spike in protein.

“It is good news,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, at a news briefing Monday.

Teams around the world are in a race to come up with vaccines against Covid-19 with unprecedented speed. The U.S. company Moderna and a team in China are at a similar stage in developing a vaccine, though using different methods to fight Covid-19, the respiratory and vascular disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Ryan said the Oxford trial was an important step in the creation of safe and effective vaccines, which are viewed by many health experts as the best hope for ending the pandemic.

He said the vaccine was administered to healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 55 and “did not appear to have any serious adverse” side effects “other than expected chills, headaches.”

“This is a positive result, but again there is a long way to go,” he said. “These are phase one studies; we now need to move into larger scale, real-world trials.”

A doctor takes a blood sample for use in a coronavirus vaccine trial in Oxford, England, on June 25, 2020. (John Cairns, University of Oxford via AP)

Researchers with the University of Oxford called the results “extremely promising” but added it is too early to know if the vaccine can provide adequate protection.

“There is still much work to be done before we can confirm if our vaccine will help manage the Covid-19 pandemic, but these early results hold promise,” Sarah Gilbert, an Oxford University researcher, told the BBC.

This limited study does not demonstrate whether the vaccine would stop someone from falling ill with Covid-19. Next, the vaccine will be tested on 30,000 people in the United States and thousands more in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

As vaccines head toward large-scale trials and potentially proven effective and safe, big questions remain over how vaccines will be distributed around the world at prices people can afford. There are concerns vaccines will be horded by wealthier nations and individuals.

“The challenge is going to be when vaccines prove clinically efficacious ensuring there is enough production to be able to supply the needs around the world. And that is in itself the big question,” Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief, said.

At present, the capacity “to supply a vaccine for everybody on the planet” does not exist, he said.

“We are going to have to prioritize who gets what vaccine at the beginning depending on which vaccine becomes available and we’re going to have to have some policy and priorities around the best use of those vaccines,” he said.

The WHO, the United Nations’ health agency, is pushing all countries to join an effort to make vaccines and drugs to fight Covid-19 cheap enough that the poorest populations in the world can be treated. A WHO initiative calls for the sharing of information on everything from how to make protective medical gear to how to manufacture medicines and vaccines to treat Covid-19.

Many countries have joined the effort, but some of the world’s leaders haven’t, most prominently the United States, China and Russia. Canada, many European nations, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Mexico are among the nations that are involved or ready to join the WHO’s initiative.

But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said he is worried nations are backing away from a commitment to make vaccines a “global public good.”

“But we see – if not many, but some – countries going the reverse direction,” he said. “When there is no consensus on having this vaccine a global public good, it could actually be owned by those who have money and those who cannot afford it may not have access to the vaccines.”

He added: “We want a groundswell of political leaders believing in making a vaccine or therapeutics a global public good. And this should not be considered as a charity to those who cannot afford [it].”

The director-general said wealthier nations need to understand that only by making vaccines affordable for everyone on the planet can the pandemic be ended and the “globalized” economy revived.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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