A researcher at Oxford University in the U.K. said on Monday that a million doses of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine could be produced by September, but experts say it’s unlikely they will be administered until next year.
Dr. Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford University said “certainly there’ll be a million doses around in September,” thanks to a manufacturing “scale-up.”
Hill also estimated some high-risk groups in Britain could be immunized as soon as December.
Hill’s comments came as Oxford researchers published new research on Monday suggesting their COVID-19 vaccine produced a “dual immune response” in people between the ages of 18 and 55 that lasted at least two months after they were immunized.
Hill said researchers saw a “good immune response in almost everybody,” adding that neutralizing antibodies were produced, and that the vaccine caused a reaction in the body’s T-cells, which help destroy cells that have been taken over by the virus.
Dr. Matthew Miller, an associate professor at McMaster University’s department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, said it’s not “unreasonable” to think a million doses of the vaccine could be produced by the fall.
He said Oxford has contracted pharmaceutical companies to produce doses of the vaccine in an effort to cut down any lag time between when the vaccine is approved, to when it is available to be distributed and administered.
Oxford University has partnered with AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical company, to produce 2 billion doses of the vaccine.
“In a way, they were kind of like hedging their bets that this is going to work and they want to be ready,” he explained.
However, Miller said in order for the vaccine to be administered by December, everything in the phase-three trials would need to go “perfectly.”
“And it is almost never the case that things go perfectly in these kinds of trials,” he said.
According to Miller, during late-stage vaccine trials researchers seek to determine how effective a vaccine is.
“Late-stage or stage-three efficacy trials typically have to enroll thousands of people, sometimes tens of thousands of people,” he explained. “And that’s where you’re immunizing people and actually looking to ensure that the vaccine prevents them from becoming ill.”
These larger trials evaluating this vaccine’s effectiveness, involving about 10,000 people in the U.K. as well as participants in South Africa and Brazil, are still underway.
Another trial is slated to start in the U.S. soon, aiming to enroll about 30,000 people.
But these late-stage trials often involve a number of hurdles, Miller said.
He said there can be issues enrolling people to take part in the trial, and there is a long waiting period to see if the vaccine is effective in limiting infections.
The vaccine will also have to satisfy regulators, he explained.
“Is it effective in all populations, or does it really only work for people of certain ages?” Miller said. “These are all major questions that we can’t really answer until those later phase studies.”
Dr. Brian Dixon, a biology professor at the University of Waterloo and Canada Research Chair in Fish and Environmental Immunology, said third-stage trials are also when researchers determine if there are any severe side effects associated with the vaccine.
He said these can include excessive fever causing hospitalization or disability and excessive swelling causing meningitis or Kawasaki disease.
Dixon said when vaccines proceed to stage-three trials, if more than one in 100,000 people have been found to experience severe side effects, the vaccine likely won’t be approved.
“In the normal course of vaccine development, like 90 per cent or 95 per cent of the vaccines that make it to those three phases of human trials do not make it to the market because of things like the serious side effects,” he said.
These trials are also when researchers can identify and attempt to tweak smaller issues with a vaccine, like trying to limit some of the less severe side effects, he explained.
Overall, Dixon said while Hill’s December timeline is “possible,” it is “on the optimistic side of things.”
“I think it’s going to be maybe next March or April, by the time that someone has a vaccine that will be will be available for the public,” he said.
Miller too said the research from Oxford is “promising,” but likely won’t change the overall timeline.
“I don’t think that the general public should be expecting to be receiving a vaccine any time earlier than next summer,” he said.
“I would be thrilled if we did, obviously, but realistically I think that’s probably the most ambitious timeline — a realistic, ambitious timeline.”
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press
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