Coronavirus: UK won’t be back to normal until summer at the earliest, says Imperial vaccine scientist

Exclusive: ‘First steps’ for emerging from pandemic dependent on vaccinating healthcare workers and vulnerable groups, says professor Robin Shattock of Imperial College London

Samuel Lovett
Sunday 01 November 2020 21:27 GMT
Coronavirus in numbers

The UK won’t start returning to normality until the summer at the earliest, the scientist behind the Imperial College London vaccine has warned, as the nation prepares to enter its second coronavirus lockdown.

Announcing the new restrictions on Saturday evening, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, said there was a “realistic hope” that a vaccine would be ready to go “in the first quarter of next year”, raising the possibility of a “very different and better” spring.  

Professor Robin Shattock, who is leading one of two British bids to develop a Covid-19 jab, has offered a different time frame.

“I would anticipate with getting a vaccine out to vulnerable populations in the first half of next year, and with the potential gain over the summer that we saw this year – with incidences going down – that we'll start to see life going back to normal in the summer of next year,” he told The Independent, speaking before England’s lockdown was first announced.

He said that the “first steps” for emerging from the pandemic would be dependent on vaccinating at-risk groups within the population, including healthcare workers and the elderly.

“If we achieve coverage of those groups by the summer, it would be game changing,” Prof Shattock said. “It wouldn’t mean everything went away, but it would give the opportunity to start coming out of this situation.”

“It is a little bit like looking into a crystal ball,” he added.

He expects that the first vaccines will be made available after Christmas, with rollout among key groups set to follow in the first six months of 2021.

Eleven vaccines, including the one developed by Oxford University, are in the final stages of large-scale community testing.

Prof Shattock, who said his own vaccine could be available by mid-2021, expects that data will be available from a number of these trials within the next two months, at which point it will be presented to regulators for approval.

Pfizer and its partner German BioNtech appears to be leading the global race, with a verdict on whether their vaccine works set to be made before Christmas. Moderna is also prepping for the global launch of its candidate, the American biotech firm said last week.

On Sunday, AstraZeneca, which has partnered with Oxford University to manufacture its vaccine, said the UK’s health regulator had started an accelerated review of its candidate.

In rolling reviews, regulators are able to see clinical data in real time and have dialogue with drug makers on manufacturing processes and trials to accelerate the approval process.

The UK government has pre-ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine and placed a separate 90-million order for the Pfizer jab.

“I would hope that there would be one or two [pharmaceutical firms] that will be presenting to the regulators this side of Christmas,” Prof Shattock said. “If not, certainly early next year.

“In the UK, it's likely that we'll see vaccines in the first half of next year. I don’t anticipate they'll be rolled out for the general population.”

He said prioritisation of healthcare workers and vulnerable groups, such as those over 65, was crucial but posed a “very large logistical undertaking”.

“That’s why it could take the first six months of next year,” he said.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, chairman of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the vaccines “will change the nature of the pandemic”.

“They will, I believe, enhance trust and sense of confidence in where the pandemic is going,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “They will prevent, I hope, more people getting severely ill and they may also dent transmission itself, so they will have a big impact.

Of those vaccines currently in phase 3, Sir Jeremy said he was confident that “more than one” of these will “prove to be effective and safe”.

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, said that a vaccine, new medicines and high throughput tests “are on their way”, but warned that “we have to get through this winter first”.

However, Prof Shattock said that a vaccine was “not going to be a golden bullet” for ending the pandemic.

The first batch of vaccines that come to market are unlikely to be the most effective, he said, pointing to those frontrunners, such as the Oxford candidate, that make use of a genetically engineered adenovirus which carries elements of Sars-Cov-2 into humans, triggering an immune response.

“If it’s one of the vaccines based on this technology, it'll be cheap and easy to roll out but it will probably not have long-term protection,” Prof Shattock said.

He added that future generations “may get there” in terms of delivering high efficacy, or even blocking the transmission of the virus between humans.

His own vaccine uses self-amplifying RNA to deliver genetic instructions to human muscle cells, which then make the ‘spike’ protein found on the surface of Sars-Cov-2 and generate a response.

This technology lends itself to rapid manufacturing scale-up, using a small amount of genetic material from the virus to produce potentially millions of doses. 

More significantly, this platform will be able to deliver repeated booster jabs, which is unlikely to be the case with the Oxford vaccine and other candidates that use the adenovirus vector approach, Prof Shattock said.

However, he added, “nobody knows at this stage what level of efficacy these vaccines will have”.

“I think the public assumes that a vaccine will be 100 per cent effective and yet we know even the influenza vaccine is about 60 per cent effective," he added.

“But a vaccine that prevents 60 per cent of hospital admissions due to Covid would have a massive impact on the health service, so would be very valuable. But it will still mean the virus is going to be around."

Kate Bingham, who heads the UK’s vaccine taskforce, said last week that the first generation of vaccines are “likely to be imperfect”.

“We should be prepared that they might not prevent infection but rather reduce symptoms, and, even then, might not work for everyone or for long,” she said.

Prof Shattock’s vaccine is meanwhile approaching the end of its phase 1 trial, with results on its safety to set follow by “the end of the year”. 

After that, Imperial will look to launch large-scale international trials to test efficacy.

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