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What’s the latest on a coronavirus vaccine?

A lady wearing a face mask gives an injection to an older man.

Answering the important questions

Dr Elizabeth Webb, Head of Research at Age UK, provides an update on what we know about the progress of a coronavirus vaccine - and other important questions to consider as winter approaches.

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Back in April, at the height of lockdown and the first peak of coronavirus deaths in the UK, Dr Elizabeth Webb published a piece on coronavirus immunity and the process of developing a vaccine. What have we learned since, and what are the key questions now?

 

What do we know about immunity to coronavirus?

Since April, we have learned a little more about immunity to coronavirus. In recent weeks scientists have found reliable evidence of a small number of people being reinfected with the virus – that is, catching it for the second time. Although this seems to be worrying news, it’s difficult to identify people who have definitely been reinfected, so it’s also difficult to know how widespread reinfection is and what this will mean for the pandemic in the longer term.

In more positive news, there’s evidence to suggest the majority of people’s immune response to coronavirus lasts for several months at least. A study of around 30,000 people in Iceland found that 90% of people who recovered from coronavirus had antibodies months later, and a study of residents of 6 care homes in England who had recovered from coronavirus found that, even among those aged 80 and older, 80% had antibodies 5 weeks later.

What’s the latest on the Oxford vaccine?

Promising findings from the initial trials of the Oxford vaccine were published in July. 1,077 people were vaccinated in these early trials, and the vaccine led to strong antibody and T-cell responses, suggesting that their immune systems would be well equipped to fight the coronavirus if they were infected.

However, on 9 September there seemed to be a setback, when it was widely publicised that the stage 3 trial had been put on hold because one of the people who had received the vaccine had had an ‘adverse reaction’. Medical details of the individual who had the adverse reaction can’t be made public due to confidentiality rules, but this pausing of trials is a standard procedure that often happens in the process of developing new vaccines.

Around 18,000 people around the world have now been given the Oxford vaccine, and with such a large number of participants it is to be expected that some will become unwell. It is important that this is closely investigated to work out whether the illness is a consequence of being vaccinated. As vaccines are given to large numbers of healthy people they have to pass even more stringent safety checks than other medicines.

There has now been an investigation by the independent UK regulator, the MRHA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency), and it was announced on 12 September that the Oxford vaccine trial had been allowed to restart.

How are the other vaccines in development progressing?

Although the Oxford vaccine is, if all goes well with the ongoing trials, probably the closest to being ready to be licensed for use, there are several other vaccines under development that aren’t far behind. In our April article on vaccines we said that there were 78 vaccines under development around the world, and the WHO (World Health Organisation) is now tracking the development of more than 170 vaccines, 9 of which are already in phase 3 trials (the final phase before a vaccine can be approved). About 50 more are slightly less advanced in their development, and are in earlier stages of testing in humans.

When is there likely to be a coronavirus vaccine?

It is not yet certain when we will have a coronavirus vaccine, as it all depends on the results of the vaccine trials. Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has recently said that he expects there to be a vaccine in the early months of 2021, and that the UK government has begun buying batches of a number of vaccines even before they are approved for use. The WHO, however, has stated they don’t expect that widespread vaccination against coronavirus will happen before the middle of 2021.

What about flu, and flu vaccines?

It’s even more important than in usual years that all those who are eligible for a flu vaccine take up the offer. Symptoms of flu can be mistaken for those of coronavirus, so even among those who don’t suffer badly with flu, getting it this winter would likely lead to a period of self-isolation and needing a coronavirus test. For those who are more vulnerable to flu, including older people and those with certain chronic illnesses, having the flu vaccine is the best way to avoid needing to go to hospital with the flu this winter.

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Last updated: Dec 01 2020

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