LONDON (Reuters) – One of the world’s leading COVID-19 experimental vaccines produces a immune response in both young and old adults, raising hopes of a path out of the gloom and economic destruction wrought by the novel coronavirus.
The vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford, also triggers lower adverse responses among the elderly, British drug maker AstraZeneca Plc, which is helping manufacture the vaccine, said on Monday.
A vaccine that works is seen as a game-changer in the battle against the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 1.15 million people, shuttered swathes of the global economy and turned normal life upside down for billions of people.
“It is encouraging to see immunogenicity responses were similar between older and younger adults and that reactogenicity was lower in older adults, where the COVID-19 disease severity is higher,” an AstraZeneca spokesman said.
“The results further build the body of evidence for the safety and immunogenicity of AZD1222,” the spokesman said, referring to the technical name of the vaccine.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be one of the first from big pharma to secure regulatory approval, along with Pfizer and BioNTech’s candidate, as the world tries to plot a path out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The news that older people get an immune response from the vaccine is positive because the immune system weakens with age and older people are those most at risk of dying from the virus.
If it works, a vaccine would allow the world to return to some measure of normality after the tumult of the pandemic.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said a vaccine was not yet ready but he was preparing logistics for a possible roll out mostly in the first half of 2021.
Asked if some people could receive a vaccine this year he told the BBC: “I don’t rule that out but that is not my central expectation.”
“The programme is progressing well, (but) we’re not there yet,” Hancock said.
COMMON COLD VIRUS
Work began on the Oxford vaccine in January. Called AZD1222 or ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, the viral vector vaccine is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus that causes infections in chimpanzees.
The chimpanzee cold virus has been genetically changed to include the genetic sequence of the so-called spike protein which the coronavirus uses to gain entry to human cells. The hope is that the human body will then attack the novel coronavirus if it sees it again.
Immunogenicity blood tests carried out on a subset of older participants echo data released in July which showed the vaccine generated “robust immune responses” in a group of healthy adults aged between 18 and 55, the Financial Times reported earlier.
Details of the finding are expected to be published shortly in a clinical journal, the FT said. It did not name the publication.
Ongoing coronavirus vaccine trials cannot prove a jab could save lives, one expert has stressed.
An effective immunisation programme has long been hailed as a route back to life as we knew it.
Hopes were raised in July when scientists from the University of Oxford found a vaccine candidate induced “strong antibody and T-cell immune responses up to day 56 of the ongoing trial”.
Antibodies and T-cells make up part of the immune system, helping to prevent an infection from taking hold.
Russia’s controversial vaccine candidate also brought about an immune response within 21 days, however, some experts later called the results “highly unlikely”.
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Writing in The BMJ, the journal’s associate editor Dr Peter Doshi stressed vaccine trials are not set up to show a jab reduces the risk of hospitalisation, intensive care admission or death.
Another expert called Dr Doshi’s comments “questionable”, but added “a number of the facts are correct”.
Dr Peter Hotez from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston has said: “Ideally, you want an antiviral vaccine to do two things.
“First, reduce the likelihood you will get severely ill and go to hospital, and two, prevent infection and therefore interrupt disease transmission.”
While Dr Doshi agrees, he has argued “current [coronavirus] trials are not actually set up to prove either”.
Several coronavirus jab candidates are in phase 3 of clinical development. At an advanced stage, significant results mean the vaccine may be considered for approval by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or the European Medicines Agency.
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“None of the trials currently underway are designed to detect a reduction in any serious outcome such as hospitalisations, intensive care use or deaths,” wrote Dr Doshi.
“Nor are the vaccines being studied to determine whether they can interrupt transmission of the virus.”
This echoes concerns voiced after the Oxford scientists released their vaccine results.
The research was hailed as “promising”, “encouraging” and “extremely positive”, however, some also pointed out an immune response may not translate to protection against complications when the coronavirus is encountered outside of a laboratory.
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Not all clinical trials have released details on the participants they are analysing.
Dr Doshi claims those we know of are evaluating mild coronavirus cases.
Honing in on the pharmaceutical giant Moderna, Dr Doshi noted how the firm’s executives have listed the rate of hospitalisation as a “key secondary endpoint” of its coronavirus vaccine trial.
Dr Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, later told The BMJ the trial “lacks adequate statistical power to assess that endpoint”.
A lack of statistical power typically means the number of participants is too small or the trial’s duration too short to accurately gauge whether a jab influences a particular outcome.
Early research suggests four out of five coronavirus cases