The Global Race for a Vaccine: Oxford Most Transparent

Competition is intensifying among research institutes and pharmaceutical companies to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine. Several international health organizations have reported the imminent manufacture of an effective and safe vaccine, to limit the impact of the virus’ global spread.

Despite promising developments in the global race to produce the hoped-for vaccine, the World Health Organization warns against excessive optimism over the production of an effective vaccine at this time. Challenges relate to human clinical trials, as well as manufacturing and production processes.

A vaccine produced by the UK’s University of Oxford, in collaboration with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, has offered hope, amid nine competing international coronavirus vaccines in ‘phase III’ clinical trials.

Researchers are in a race against time to produce the greatly anticipated vaccine, to put an end to the pandemic. As the world awaits news on vaccines in trial stages, the Oxford vaccine raised hopes during its early-phase human trials, due to the safety and immune response recorded. Moreover, the World Health Organization rated the Oxford vaccine among the best of vaccines currently under development.

The Oxford vaccine’s clinical trials were put on hold after a British volunteer developed symptoms of transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord. Amid the disappointment, there was doubt as to the efficacy of the vaccine and its potential for early introduction to the market. Clinical trials of the vaccine were paused in all countries, while international regulatory authorities and independent committees reviewed vaccine safety data and standards.

Despite the temporary setback to the Oxford team, it is worth noting these situations are common in medical trials and vaccine manufacture. WHO Chief Scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said: “This is perhaps a wake-up call to recognize the fact that there are ups and downs in clinical development and we have to be prepared for those. There is no need to be overly discouraged, because these things happen.”

 

The resumption of the University of Oxford’s clinical trials, after no link was found between the vaccine and the adverse effects experienced by the volunteer, is significant. It demonstrates that the University’s research is transparent and credible, adhering to the necessary scientific and health procedures governing vaccine manufacture. This is in contrast to some pharmaceutical companies taking part in the vaccine race, such as German company BioNTech and US corporation Pfizer, who have combined two clinical trials in one. Others have skipped a key stage in the clinical trials, as was the case in Russia. The ministry of health announced the distribution of the first batch of the Sputnik 5 vaccine, despite not having completed stage III trials, sparking intense international criticism.

Adherence to all three phases of clinical trials before approving a vaccine for widespread use is important for a number of reasons. The aim of the first phase is to focus on safety. The second phase monitors the immune response to the vaccine, while the third phase aims to test the vaccine on the largest possible number of volunteers. This allows  for review of the first two phases, while studying the level of protection volunteers gain from the vaccine. The top priority is that a vaccine is effective, safe and compatible with safety standards before it is rolled out for public use. It is not a race with winners and losers, rather it is about making science a genuine way to protect human health and lives.

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