There are reasons to be optimistic about a coronavirus vaccine. But it will take time- Patrick Vallance
Covid-19 has made fundamental and long-lasting changes to the way we live our lives, not just in the UK, but across the world.
As we continue with social-distancing measures and deal with the most immediate issue of reducing the number of cases to protect the NHS and save lives, and keeping R, which is the average infection rate per person, below one, we also need to progress ways to tackle the disease in the longer term.
Ultimately the way out will likely include vaccines, new medicines or both. An effective vaccine would both prevent people getting Covid-19 and curb transmission.
The vaccines taskforce will be working in lockstep with the public and private sector
Ideally, we would have one ready to take off the shelf and roll out yesterday. One that could be delivered at scale. But this is a new disease that didn’t exist before December and we have a lot to learn about the virus and how the body responds to it.
All new vaccines that come into development are long shots; only some end up being successful, and the whole process requires experimentation. Coronavirus will be no different and presents new challenges for vaccine development. This will take time, and we should be clear it is not a certainty.
But there is cause for optimism. With more than 80 vaccine projects across the world, there is an effort the like of which has never been seen before.
A vaccine has to work, but it also has to be safe. If a vaccine is to be given to billions of people, many of whom may be at a low risk from Covid-19, it must have a good safety profile.
Even when a vaccine has been shown to produce an immune response there will still be clinical testing and trials to be done. With Covid-19 we need to understand more about the immune response and how that will alter the response to the disease. This presents new challenges for making an effective and safe vaccine.
Simultaneously, if we are to respond at the right pace, work must and will be taking place to build the manufacturing capacity needed to take any vaccine from lab to jab; producing the millions or potentially billions of doses that will be needed if an effective vaccine is found. This sort of scaling of a vaccine can be done but is not a trivial task.
The UK is home to world-leading scientists, researchers and companies who are at the forefront of vaccine development and manufacturing. The progress in vaccine developments from our academic institutions here in the UK is impressive. And as the announcement from GSK and Sanofi shows, companies are collaborating to work together to tackle this threat.
Helping get a vaccine is rightly one of the government’s biggest priorities, which is why we have brought together scientists, industry leaders and the government under a single taskforce. This will ensure vaccine discovery is funded, clinical trials can be done quickly, regulators help speed the path to a safe and effective vaccine, and we develop manufacturing capabilities to ensure that we can make and access large quantities of vaccine.
Co-operation between the UK and international efforts has to be at the heart of this, and the UK is funding vaccines development through partnership across the world.
The more vaccine development projects there are, the greater the odds that a vaccine will be available in 12-18 months. But it is not certain.
In the UK there is already a lot of work, with pre-clinical studies underway at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London to name but two. And the UK is a major international donor to the programme to develop a coronavirus vaccine under the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, pledging £250m.
The vaccines taskforce will be working in lockstep with the public and private sector, supporting leading academics and identifying ways to fast-track clinical trials.
The UK has a proud history in vaccinology. It was an Englishman, Edward Jenner, who pioneered the field over 200 years ago. Two centuries on, the scientific community will work tirelessly to find a medicine or vaccine against Covid-19, and we need to back them every step of the way.
• Patrick Vallance is the UK government chief scientific adviser