Oxford could still catch US rivals in the race for an approved coronavirus vaccine

The Oxford coronavirus vaccine could still catch up with its US rivals as scientists said they were hoping to have results by Christmas, as they confirmed regulators are conducting a so-called ‘rolling review’ to speed up the process.

On Thursday, the British team published new results showing the ‘ChAdOx1 nCov-2019’ vaccine boosts immunity in older people and causes fewer side effects than for younger groups.

Prof Andrew Pollard, chief investigator on the study at the University of Oxford, told a briefing that there was "not that much difference in timing" between the groups and that all still needed to get through regulators.

“We don’t know the results, we haven’t been able to look at them yet, but we are optimistic that we’ll be able to do that before Christmas,” he said.

“The next step after that is that we have to provide all of the information to the regulators so that they can assess the quality of the vaccine, and make decisions about licencing.

How does the Oxford vaccine work?

“And if that process happens in due haste and speed that is appropriate in the pandemic, then it’s possible that things could line up. So there’s not very much difference in timing between the various different vaccines.”

Prof Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher of Oxford’s vaccine development programme, said the team had already been in contact with several regulators to speed up the usual process.

“What we are doing to assist the regulators, in being able to come to their decision as early as they possibly could, is what’s called a rolling review,” she said.

“We’re not waiting until we have the last piece of information that we need to apply for use of the vaccine and then providing it to the regulators.

“Instead, we’re providing the information available now, so that they can already start to look at that and assess it. That process has already started with multiple regulators with the aim of being able to speed up the final process of the licence application once we have the final clinical data set, and we hope that that should come in before Christmas.”

While pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna have already published interim Phase 3 results, which prove the vaccine is effective at protecting people from the virus, the Oxford/AstraZeneca team has so far only released Phase 2 data, which shows the jab boosts antibodies and t-cells.

How does the Moderna vaccine work

Although the results indicate the vaccine is likely to be protective, the trial data is currently ‘blinded’, meaning even the researchers do not know who has been immunised and who was given a placebo. 

An independent panel will decide when the results are ready, and they are waiting to see 53 cases of coronavirus in the trial population before ‘unblinding’ the study. 

However, the results published in The Lancet on Thursday showed the vaccine produces a good immune response, even in the over-70s, who are most at risk from the disease.

No serious adverse health events related to the vaccine were seen in the participants and older people were found to have fewer side effects (such as fatigue and muscle ache) than younger participants.

Dr Maheshi Ramasamy, investigator at the Oxford Vaccine Group and consultant physician, said: “Older adults are a priority group for Covid-19 vaccination, because they are at increased risk of severe disease, but we know that they tend to have poorer vaccine responses.

“We were pleased to see that our vaccine was not only well tolerated in older adults, but also stimulated similar immune responses to those seen in younger volunteers.

“The next step will be to see if this translates into protection from the disease itself.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the publication as "a really encouraging set of findings" but said there was still work to be done.

The Government has placed orders for 100 million doses of the vaccine (enough to vaccinate most of the population) should it receive regulatory approval.

The new results show that two doses of the vaccine will be needed for each person.

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