Coronavirus vaccine race: volunteers to be infected in the UK

Human guinea pigs in a London lab are to be given a form of the killer virus as the search for a lucrative jab hots up

Sunday March 08 2020, 12.01am, The Sunday Times
Hospital medics in Wuhan, China: human testing of prototype vaccines could begin next month

It sounds tempting: a payment of £3,500 to spend two weeks relaxing in front of the television, playing video games or catching up on some reading. There is a catch, however — you will be infected with a coronavirus and banned from physical contact with the outside world.

As part of a global experiment, up to 24 people at a time will be paid to be infected with a coronavirus in a $2bn (£1.53bn) race to find a vaccine for Covid-19.

Hvivo, the company that runs the quarantine unit in a laboratory in east London, is one of more than 20 firms and public sector organisations taking part in a global effort to develop a vaccine for the virus, which has killed more than 3,500 people. The aim is to have an injection that could be used next winter to protect the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

In America, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) is sponsoring four vaccine projects, including one by Moderna, a biotech company based outside Boston. British drug giants such as Glaxo Smith Kline — which has teamed up with Clover Biopharmaceuticals, a Chinese biotech firm — have also committed to researching a vaccine. The World Health Organisation said there were more than 20 in development.
The rewards are considerable. The French drugmaker Sanofi, one of the world’s biggest producers of vaccines, made €1.9bn (£1.6bn) selling vaccines against flu last year. The rewards for an effective coronavirus vaccine could be considerably higher.

Professor John Oxford, an expert in virology at Queen Mary University of London, has studied cold and flu viruses, including coronavirus, for more than 50 years. He said a vaccine was “at least a year away”. However, several labs have prototypes they are testing on animals, and human trials are due to begin next month.

Work on a vaccine to protect against Covid-19 began in January, when Chinese researchers released the genetic data for the virus, prompting the worldwide effort. Cepi, which was set up in response to the ebola outbreaks of 2014-2016, is a crucial aid in funding development of a vaccine, which the organisation’s chief executive, Richard Hatchett, estimates could cost $2bn.

However, experts have suggested that the UK risks being unable to secure supplies of vaccines because it does not have the production capability to manufacture its own. Instead, Britain will have to rely on imports from overseas.

Part of the problem is investment. While the government pledged £66m for a new vaccine plant at Harwell Campus, near Oxford, in 2018, the facility is not due to be completed until 2022. Even then, it will not be able to deal with an urgent pandemic. By contrast, President Donald Trump last week signed an $8.3bn funding bill to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

This means the UK will be reliant on vaccines imported from overseas, as it is with seasonal flu jabs. “Countries get extremely protectionist in these situations,” said a senior executive at a global drugmaker. “If they don’t want to sign off on exports, they don’t have to.”

It makes the involvement of British companies such as Hvivo important. Its plan, to test a less harmful virus that is closely related to Covid-19, has caught the attention of Chinese pharmaceuticals firms, who have agreed to co-fund the study. Cathal Friel, executive chairman of Hvivo’s parent company, Open Orphan, said it placed the company at the “forefront of the fight against the outbreak”.

Once Hvivo has secured permission from the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, testing will begin. Up to 24 volunteers at a time will be kept in quarantine at Hvivo’s laboratory at Queen Mary BioEnterprises Innovation Centre at Whitechapel in east London. They will be infected with two common strains of coronavirus, 0C43 and 229E, from the same family of viruses, but which cause only a mild respiratory illness. It will allow researchers and pharmaceuticals firms to test the efficacy of new viruses and antiviral medications in a safe environment.

Oxford said volunteers would feel the symptoms of a cough or a cold, which would model those of Covid-19. “If it works on our little virus, it is very likely to work in the real world,” he said.
Before they can become human guinea pigs, volunteers will be quizzed on their medical history and undergo blood, urine and cardiac tests. Participants will visit the lab to be inoculated two weeks before going into isolation for 14 days.

Nurses and doctors who enter the room for regular nasal swabs, blood tests and to collect any dirty tissues (which are later weighed to measure their “viral load”) will be required to wear protective clothing and ventilators. During those two weeks, participants will be unable to exercise or have any physical contact with other people. Even the food they eat will be tightly controlled. The most effective drugs and new or existing vaccines will then be fast-tracked into real-world testing against Covid-19.

“Drugs companies can get a very good idea within a few months of starting a vaccine study whether it’s working or not, using such a small sample of people,” said Andrew Catchpole, Hvivo’s chief scientist.
One woman who knows what the participants should expect is Maria Pirgova, a 26-year-old law student at City University of London. Pirgova spent two weeks in Hvivo’s lab last month as part of a trial for a new vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, a common infection.

“My university course is a bit intense so I don’t have time to get a job,” said Pirgova, who moved to the UK from Bulgaria six years ago. “I was able to use the money to pay my bills while I’m studying for upcoming exams in May.”

Now work will begin to recruit volunteers. A key part of the screening will be to ensure that they do not already have antibodies against the coronavirus. “We’ve actually all been exposed to many coronaviruses, which means we could have some kind of underlying immunity to it,” said Catchpole.

Those interested in joining the global fight can find out more on Hvivo’s website, aptly called FluCamp.com

Biotech firms battling the bug

America
The US is storming ahead in the race to develop a vaccine. Donald Trump has announced $3bn for research. Moderna, a biotech company, is already recruiting 45 healthy volunteers to dose with its vaccine.

China
Clover Biopharmaceuticals has joined British firm GlaxoSmithKline to research a jab. Stemirna Therapeutics, based in Shanghai, hopes to begin human tests in April.

Europe
Scientists at Imperial College London are testing an RNA-based vaccine in mice and hope to begin human testing this year.

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