The government has appointed a new taskforce to drive forward the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine and prepare industry to manufacture it at scale once it is developed.
Led by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, the Vaccine Taskforce will coordinate efforts to find a vaccine, funnel resources and support to industry and research institutions, and review regulations in order to remove any unnecessary red tape in their way.
The announcement comes amid warnings from experts that the UK may face fresh waves of Covid-19 after the current lockdown is lifted, requiring social distancing measures to continue until a vaccine is found.
Professor Sarah Gilbert, of Oxford University, has said she is hopeful of identifying a vaccine by September, but other experts fear that inoculations will not be available until well into 2021.
The UK has already pledged £250m to the international effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine under the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
Announcing the creation of the new taskforce at Downing Street, the business secretary, Alok Sharma, said that he could not set a timescale for the creation of a vaccine.
“We cannot put a date on when we will get a vaccine,” said Mr Sharma. “But we live in a country with a rich history of pioneering science, and with the government backing our scientists, we have the best chance to do this as quickly as possible.”
Sir Patrick said that there were more than 100 vaccine projects under way around the world, but he cautioned that it could take some time to find a vaccine that was effective and safe.
“We’ve got to get a vaccine and that isn’t two days away and it isn’t two months away,” he said. “Making a vaccine is a difficult, complicated process. It doesn’t only have to work, it has to be safe. And for a disease like this it has to be very safe, if you are going to use it right across the population. There’s a lot to do before we are in that position.”
He added: “Each single project doesn’t have a high probability of success. So although everyone goes into it with great enthusiasm and we hope they work, it is never the case that we know we are going to get a vaccine that is going to work.”
Britain must not rely only on homegrown research projects in universities such as Oxford and London Imperial but must be ready to take advantage of products developed overseas, he said.
“This is going to come from somewhere,” he said. “ We just need to back lots of horses at the moment and make sure we are in a great position to access a vaccine when it occurs.”
Asked who would be given priority to receive a vaccine when it is ready, Sir Patrick said: “It’s going to be important that we vaccinate in the way we normally do for these diseases, which is to make sure that the vulnerable are protected and then to roll out to wider vaccination, but that is some way off.”
Mr Sharma added: “UK scientists are working as fast as they can to find a vaccine that fights coronavirus, saving and protecting people’s lives. We stand firmly behind them in their efforts.
“The Vaccine Taskforce is key to coordinating efforts to rapidly accelerate the development and manufacture of a potential new vaccine, so we can make sure it is widely available to patients as soon as possible.”
Mr Sharma also announced 21 new research projects to receive funds from a £14m government pot for the development of treatments and vaccines.
- An Oxford University project to trial an anti-malarial drug with anti-inflammatory properties in order to determine whether it can reduce the harm of Covid-19 to high-risk patients;
- Imperial College London tests on a potential vaccine designed to stimulate the body’s production of protective antibodies;
- A Public Health England effort to develop a new antibody that could offer protection against infection and disease progression;
- A Public Health England study into the transmission of Covid-19 on materials found in hospitals and households, including fabric, plastics, metals and ceramics.
Joining Sir Patrick and Prof Van-Tam on the taskforce are representatives from government, academia and industry, including the government’s life science champion Sir John Bell, drugs giant AstraZeneca and the Wellcome Trust.
They will aim to make the UK a leader in clinical vaccine testing and manufacturing, building on existing research and development expertise.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “We’re doing everything possible to save lives and beat this disease, and that includes working flat out with businesses, researchers and industry to find a vaccine as quickly as possible.
“The UK is world-leading in developing vaccines. We are the biggest contributor to the global effort and are preparing to ensure we can manufacture vaccines here at home as soon as practically possible.”
The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said: “The UK has some of the best vaccine scientists in the world, but we need to take account of the whole development process. This taskforce will ensure the UK can take an end-to-end view. This includes funding research … and ensuring manufacturing capability to deliver a Covid-19 vaccination as quickly as possible.”
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