Skip to main content

Screen grab taken from video issued by Oxford University showing microbiologist Elisa Granato being injected as part of the first human trials in the U.K. for a potential coronavirus vaccine, on April 23, 2020.Pool/The Associated Press

Researchers at the University of Oxford are racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 and are so confident their drug will work that they plan to make a million doses of it this summer.

The team at Oxford’s Jenner Institute have been working on the vaccine since January, and clinical trials involving more than 500 volunteers will begin Thursday. The testing is expected to take several months, but the researchers have already teamed up with seven manufacturers in Britain, Europe, India and China to produce one million doses by September and millions more by the end of the year.

“I guess that reflects to a degree our confidence that this vaccine probably should work and therefore the doses will be needed,” Adrian Hill, director of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, told journalists in a recent conference call. Professor Sarah Gilbert, who heads the team, said she was “80 per cent” certain the vaccine would be effective. “Personally, I have a high degree of confidence because I’ve worked with this technology a lot,” she said.

There are around 100 COVID-19 vaccine projects under way around the world; four have gone into clinical trial in the United States, Germany and China. Developing a vaccine has been seen as the only way out of the pandemic, and most public health experts have said it will take up to 18 months to make a workable drug. Last week the British government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said that “all new vaccines that come into development are long shots.”

The Oxford group is taking an expensive gamble. Dr. Hill would not say how much the team has invested in producing the vaccine other than it was “tens of millions” of pounds. If the vaccine does not work, he said the doses will be scrapped and the money lost.

He and the other researchers are betting on the project’s unique technology, which is derived from a weakened version of a common cold virus from chimpanzees. The virus is genetically altered to make it harmless to humans and then engineered to produce the same spike-like proteins the new coronavirus uses to infect humans. Once injected as a vaccine, it primes the body’s immune system to recognize and attack COVID-19.

Dr. Gilbert said the core of the technology – known as ChAdOx – serves as a platform to develop other vaccines. It has already been used to make vaccines for other coronavirus diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. She added that the Oxford researchers had been working on a pandemic scenario last year and experimenting with the platform to see whether it could develop a vaccine for a virus they dubbed “disease X.” When the COVID-19 outbreak took hold in China in January, the team switched gears.

If the vaccine works, the next question will be how it’s distributed. Researchers are worried that wealthy countries, where most drugs are developed, might try to hoard vaccines or inoculate their citizens first.

This week, Britain’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, acknowledged the importance of winning the race to produce a vaccine. ”The upside of being the first country in the world to develop a successful vaccine is so great that I am throwing everything at it,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Mr. Hancock has promised to ramp up the U.K.’s drug manufacturing capacity to produce a vaccine as quickly as possible. The government has also committed £20-million ($34.9-million), to the Oxford project and £22.5-million to a vaccine program at Imperial College London that is also close to beginning clinical trials.

The Oxford team wants to ensure that any new vaccine is distributed fairly, Dr. Hill said. “We’re very concerned that no one country tries to own all of the vaccine because it’s going to be needed internationally. We want to be able to use the vaccine where it is needed most.”

He added that while the current focus of the outbreak has been in Europe and the United States, that could change if the virus spreads into Africa. But he said there has been little international agreement on how vaccines will be dished out. “Nobody has got the solution at the moment. It links to the funding question: who has funded the vaccine development and the particular batch that is being made?”

Some work is being done though the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an Oslo-based organization set up in 2017 to accelerate the development of vaccines and ensure equitable access. The coalition has issued a call for US$2-billion to support a global COVID-19 vaccine program and has been tracking the various research projects. So far several countries, including Canada and Britain, have contributed to the program.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.