Coronavirus vaccine could be ready by September

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, told The Times she was “80 per cent confident” that the vaccine being developed by her team would work, with human trials due to begin in the next fortnight.

Alice Thomson, Rachel Sylvester, Chris Smyth, Oliver Wright www.thetimes.co.uk 

A vaccine against coronavirus could be ready as soon as September, the British scientist leading one of the world’s most advanced efforts has said.

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, told The Times she was “80 per cent confident” that the vaccine being developed by her team would work, with human trials due to begin in the next fortnight.

The government signalled that it would be willing to fund the manufacture of millions of doses in advance if results looked promising. This would allow it to be available immediately to the public if it were proven to work.

With ministers struggling to find a strategy to exit the lockdown, long-term hopes of a return to normality rely on a vaccine.

Even if measures to stop the spread of coronavirus are eased in the coming weeks, officials are expecting that without a vaccine some element of social distancing, such as shielding of the vulnerable or working from home, would remain in place for a long time.

The development came as:

  • Downing Street said that Boris Johnson was walking for the first time since leaving intensive care and watching films and doing sudoku puzzles as he continued to recover from Covid-19.
  • The number of UK deaths from Covid-19 reached nearly 9,000, with a further 980 reported yesterday, the highest daily total so far.
  • Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that there was enough personal protective equipment for NHS staff if doctors used “no more” than necessary. More than 742 million pieces have been delivered since the outbreak began.
  • More than 19,000 coronavirus tests were carried out on Thursday as Mr Hancock said there was capacity for “all key social care staff and NHS staff who need to be tested to get those tests”.
  • Downing Street urged police against being “heavy-handed” during the lockdown over the Easter weekend as officers patrolled supermarkets.
  • The worldwide death toll reached 100,000, according to Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

Professor Gilbert’s team is one of dozens around the world trying to find a vaccine and is the most advanced in Britain. She has been working seven days a week to rush through the development stages.

“I think there’s a high chance that it will work based on other things that we have done with this type of vaccine,” she said. “It’s not just a hunch and as every week goes by we have more data to look at . . . I would go for 80 per cent, that’s my personal view.”

Initial safety trials are due to begin soon, with further studies following around the world to see if the vaccine reduces the risk of catching coronavirus.

Lockdown makes it harder to test a vaccine when the virus is not spreading, Professor Gilbert said. However, if one of the countries in which it is trialled “turns out to have a high rate of virus transmission then we will get our efficacy results very quickly, so that is the strategy for reducing the time”.

Asked if the most optimistic scenario for a working vaccine was September, she said: “Yes and we have to go for that.” Success by the autumn was “just about possible if everything goes perfectly”.

However, she added: “Nobody can promise it’s going to work.” Manufacturing millions of doses can take months and Professor Gilbert said she was talking to the government about going into production before final results were in.

Winter flu vaccines are typically 40-60 per cent effective, although this varies depending on the annual strain. Ministers think that if a vaccine looks viable it will be worth spending tens of millions of pounds to have it ready for use given the economic cost of lockdown.

The US philanthropist Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, says that he will “waste” billions of dollars manufacturing vaccines, even though most will fail, in order to avoid a delay for any that prove successful.