Research Roundup: Race is on for a COVID-19 vaccine
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In its largest award to date, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority announced it will put US$1.2 billion behind the ChAdOx1 vaccine candidate, now known as AZD1222, which was invented at the University of Oxford Jenner Institute and was recently licensed to AstraZeneca for further development. This award will fund phase 3 clinical trials to begin this summer with 30,000 US volunteers and scaled-up manufacturing. The vaccine is currently being tested on 1,000 volunteers in England in phase 1/2 clinical trials. The award is part of Operation Warp Speed, the recently launched US government endeavor to make 300 million doses of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine available by January 2021. Scientists at the Jenner Institute developed ChAdOx1 with support from US government scientists at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, part of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), who performed preclinical efficacy testing with the vaccine on rhesus macaques.
Moderna released interim phase 1 clinical trial results for its mRNA-1273 SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate, which is backed by NIAID. The results, from a NIAID-led trial, found that eight volunteers developed neutralizing antibodies to COVID-19 after receiving two-dose versions of the candidate vaccine at different dose levels. Those who received two lower doses (25 micrograms) developed antibodies commensurate to people who have recovered from the disease, while those who received two higher doses (100 micrograms) developed antibodies significantly exceeding levels of people who have recovered. It’s not yet clear whether these antibodies provide protection, and some experts have tried to temper enthusiasm around the news, noting that Moderna revealed too little information to conclude whether the candidate holds promise.
The Chinese government is working to fast-track promising COVID-19 vaccine projects. It has at least four candidates in clinical development funded mostly by its Ministry of Science and Technology. Fast-tracking candidates, however, may come at a cost. Domestic public confidence in Chinese made vaccines is low and was dragged down in 2018 after a Chinese company falsified production records for a rabies vaccine and sold more than 250,000 doses for infants that didn’t meet medical standards. Still, experts say that the Chinese government sees a vaccine as critical for public health and reigniting a strong economy, If China develops the world’s first vaccine, President Xi Jinping has promised to share the vaccine with the rest of the world. Doing so could help the government deflect global criticism of its early response to the outbreak and provide propaganda in favor of China’s authoritarian political structure over Western models.