- AstraZeneca will help advance an experimental coronavirus vaccine created by researchers at Oxford University under a collaboration announced Thursday.
- The vaccine, known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, uses a weakened and genetically altered version of the virus that causes common colds to teach the body how to fight off infection by SARS-Cov-2, as the new coronavirus is now called. It has produced encouraging results in animal tests, and a Phase 1 trial began last week, with results expected in May.
- Oxford started earlier than most groups and is one of a handful of organizations to already begin human testing of a coronavirus vaccine, likely the best solution for ending the pandemic. With AstraZeneca's help, late-stage testing could begin by the middle of the year.
The world got some sorely needed news yesterday with the emergence of data that could lead to the imminent emergency authorization of the experimental Gilead medicine remdesivir.
But Gilead's drug, at best, can only help blunt the coronavirus's vicious attacks in people with already diagnosed disease. Ultimately, it'll be a vaccine that prevents infections and ends the pandemic, which has now afflicted more than 3.2 million people across the globe and killed nearly 228,000.
The good news is vaccines are moving at an unprecedented pace. Dozens of efforts are underway, offering at least the chance to meet the 12- to 18-month approval timeline often cited by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci. Moderna and BioNTech, for example, are already in human testing with coronavirus vaccines that use new, and unproven, messenger RNA technology. Moderna's could be ready for late-stage testing in the fall, if early results are positive, and potentially for emergency use in certain groups like healthcare workers soon after.
Vaccines from CanSino Biologics, Sinovac, Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and Inovio Pharmaceuticals are in human trials as well. And pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline have moved quickly or allied in unusual ways to speed more traditional approaches, all part of a chaotic dash to get a treatment to market as quickly as possible. J&J, for instance, recently said it think its vaccine could be ready for emergency use by 2021.
AstraZeneca — whose efforts, thus far, have largely centered around repurposing its existing drugs for testing on coronavirus symptoms — is now in that race, taking a baton from a group of researchers at Oxford University in England that has made unusually fast progress. Starting earlier than many larger rivals, the group had already been testing experimental vaccines for other types of coronavirus last year. That progress has helped them quickly pivot to a vaccine for SARS-Cov-2 and produce promising results in animal tests.
The vaccine, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, contains a genetically modified and weakened adenovirus, the type that causes colds. The virus is loaded up with genetic blueprints for the "spike" protein that SARS-CoV-2 uses to infect cells. Once in the body, the weakened virus burrows into cells and tells them to produce the spike protein, which should, in turn, produce an immune response. The hope is that'll prepare the body to thwart infection from the real coronavirus, though it's not yet clear if getting the body familiar with the spike protein, on its own, will be enough.
Before AstraZeneca came along, Oxford had already started a human test of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 in people between 18 and 55 years of age, with results expected next month. The New York Times reported earlier this week that the study could set the stage for a 5,000-person late-stage trial that begins next month, and potentially millions of doses available by the fall if all goes well and the vaccine gets an emergency nod from regulators.
AstraZeneca will now take the lead on that work, handling development and ultimately manufacturing and ultimately distribution of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19.
"Our hope is that, by joining forces, we can accelerate the globalization of a vaccine to combat the virus and protect people from the deadliest pandemic in a generation," said CEO Pascal Soriot, in a statement.