Coronavirus vaccines set to be ‘ready by Christmas’ but only 4m will be available

Data from final trials of two Covid vaccines could be available “within weeks” but there will only be four million doses of the Oxford jab by the end of the year, MPs were told today.

Rhys Blakely, Science Correspondent

Data from final trials of two Covid vaccines could be available “within weeks” but there will only be four million doses of the Oxford jab by the end of the year, MPs were told today.

Kate Bingham, chairwoman of the government’s Vaccine Taskforce, said inoculations from Pfizer and Oxford University had the “possibility of being ready before the end of the year”.

However, she also revealed that only about four million doses of the Oxford vaccine would be manufactured by Christmas.

That falls far short of a statement made by the government in May, which suggested that 30 million doses could be supplied by September.

Greg Clark, the Conservative MP who chairs the science and technology select committee, said that number of doses would not be sufficient to forge ahead with a “mass deployment” that would focus first on frontline health workers, the elderly and others at high risk.

Ms Bingham added that up to ten million doses of the Pfizer vaccine could also be available by January but cautioned that rolling it out would be challenging.

The Pfizer jab contains a type of genetic material known as mRNA which must be stored in ultra-cold conditions of -70C. “They may be relatively straightforward to manufacture initially but the cost of deployment and the complexity of deployment is very high — we have to find better vaccine formats,” she said.

There is no guarantee that any of the six vaccines that Ms Bingham has arranged to buy will work and before any jab could be deployed it would have to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Andrew Pollard, from the Oxford team, said this morning that there was “a small chance” that its vaccine would be ready for distribution before Christmas.

“The first step is to reach the point where we can do an analysis and find out whether or not the vaccine works . . . I’m optimistic that we could reach that point before the end of this year,” he said. He said it was not clear how long regulatory clearance would take.

The deals struck by Ms Bingham could secure some 350 million doses in total for the UK. The aim has been to spread the risk among several groups and technologies in the expectation that several will fail.

“We’re manufacturing now so we will have vaccines ready — so that as soon as we have approval from MHRA, you’ll be able to start deployment,” she told members of the science and technology and health and social care committees this afternoon.

However, when pressed on the number of doses that would be available, she said production of the Oxford vaccine had not been scaled up as quickly as planned.

“The projections that were made in good faith at the time, to get to 30 million doses in September, [assumed] that absolutely everything would work and that there were no hiccups at all,” she said.

The Oxford vaccine relies on a harmless virus, known as adenovirus, which was originally taken from a chimpanzee. This is used to carry a piece of genetic code into a person’s cells, which goes on to produce a protein found on the surface of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. This should prepare the immune system to fend off the real pathogen.

Producing the vaccine calls for the adenovirus to be cultivated inside living cells. Ms Bingham said this technically demanding step had run into obstacles.

“It’s not through lack of care and attention or availability of equipment or anything like that. It’s just that this normally takes a very long time,” she said.

At present, the government has doses of the Oxford vaccine in the “low single millions”, she said. “The third batch of the thousand litre manufacturing is under way now. So that should get us up to about four million doses by the end of the year.”

These doses will not immediately be ready to be sent to clinics, however. They will first have to be transferred from bulk storage into small glass vials. That will not take place until the government is confident they are safe and effective, because once they are decanted the clock starts ticking on their use-by date.

Writing last week in The Lancet, Ms Bingham warned that a vaccine would not allow life to return quickly to normal. “It is important to guard against complacency and over-optimism. The first generation of vaccines is likely to be imperfect, and we should be prepared that they might not prevent infection but rather reduce symptoms, and, even then, might not work for everyone or for long,” she said.

Robin Shattock, one of the scientists behind another vaccine developed by Imperial College London, said today that several vaccines may be needed to stop the pandemic. “The first vaccines may reach the bar of preventing severe disease, but they may not necessarily block transmission,” he said.

Ms Bingham also told MPs that she had revealed “nothing confidential” at an online networking event last week. The Sunday Times had revealed that Ms Bingham, who is married to the Conservative Treasury minister Jesse Norman, had spoken to the online conference, which anybody could join for a $200 fee. During her talk she was said to have identified several vaccine projects being monitored by the UK government.

Asked if she disclosed anything that was proprietary and should not have been in the public domain, she replied: “No, and there have been a lot of nonsense reports, and inaccurate, and I’m afraid to say irresponsible, reports suggesting that I did. What I described was the landscape of vaccines.”

She said she had disclosed “nothing commercially sensitive, nothing confidential” but admitted there was an error on a slide, a footnote that suggested it was confidential. She said she had made an error because she was “working too fast”.

She added: “There was nothing confidential and those footers should not have been there.”

•Astrazeneca is planning a so-called “storm chaser” trial of a treatment that could be used to protect vulnerable care home residents who are exposed to the coronavirus.

The trials are expected to involve about 1,100 people in the United States and Britain and will include long-term care home residents. If one person in a home tests positive for Covid-19, those around them would be given a dose of a monoclonal antibody drug.

The hope is that a three-minute infusion of the laboratory-produced antibodies could defend against the coronavirus for between six and 12 months.

Astrazeneca said the trial would “evaluate post-exposure prophylaxis and pre-emptive treatment”. Earlier this week the US government said it would invest about $486 million for the development and supply of up to 100,000 doses of the therapy.

The research has involved evaluating more than 1,500 so-called monoclonal antibodies (mAbs). These mimic the neutralising antibodies created naturally by the immune systems of patients who recover from Covid-19. The mAbs were screened to choose the two most effective against the virus and they have been engineered to have a longer life than natural antibodies.

Astrazeneca has said monoclonal antibodies are unlikely to be an alternative to vaccines for the general population because they are much more expensive.