Scientists in the UK will begin trials of a potential Covid-19 vaccine on humans Thursday, as the government warns it could have to rely on social distancing measures until next year assuming no vaccine or treatment is found before then.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said Wednesday that the probability of having a vaccine or treatment “anytime in the next calendar year” is “incredibly small.”
“I think we should be realistic about that, we’re going to have to rely on other social measures,” Whitty said.
The human vaccine trial has been developed by scientists at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and will begin Thursday, the university confirmed to CNN.
Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, told The Times of London she was “80% confident” that the vaccine being developed by her team would work. It is hoped about a million doses could be ready by September.
The Oxford vaccine candidate, called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, is made from a harmless chimpanzee virus.
“Vaccines made from the ChAdOx1 virus have been given to more than 320 people to date and have been shown to be safe and well tolerated, although they can cause temporary side effects, such as a temperature, headache or sore arm,” according to the University of Oxford.
The UK has been in so-called lockdown, with restrictions on leaving the house except for essential reasons and daily exercise in force since March 23.
As the number of new coronavirus cases start to plateau, the government is now turning to the next part of its strategy to combat the virus: test, track and trace.
The government has repeatedly promised the UK will test 100,000 people for Covid-19 per day by the end of April. That is just seven days away, yet government figures released Wednesday showed only 13,522 people had been tested in a 24-hour period.
First Secretary of State Dominic Raab, who is deputizing for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from coronavirus, told Parliament on Wednesday the UK’s capacity for tests is now at “40,000 a day,” raising questions as to why that number of tests is not actually being carried out.
Raab said he expects to see “an exponential increase” in the next week and the government is making “good progress” and will meet its target.
Findings expected next month
Meanwhile, the UK hopes to enlist up to 300,000 people to a major long-term study to track the spread of coronavirus in the population, and understand the levels of immunity. Authorities hope that the study will help improve understanding of how many people are infected, and how many have developed antibodies, and possible immunity, to the virus.
Participants will form “a representative sample of the entire UK population by age and geography” with initial findings expected in early May, a government statement said Wednesday.
Participants will provide samples taken from self-administered nose and throat swabs, and answer a few short questions during a home visit by a trained health worker. The swab tests will show whether or not participants currently have the virus. They will be asked to take further tests every week for the first five weeks, then every month for 12 months.
Adults from around 1,000 households will also provide a blood sample taken by a trained health worker. These tests will help determine what proportion of the population has developed antibodies to Covid-19. Participants will be asked to give further samples monthly for the next 12 months, according to authorities.
“This survey will help to track the current extent of transmission and infection in the UK, while also answering crucial questions about immunity as we continue to build up our understanding of this new virus,” UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement. “Together, these results will help us better understand the spread of the virus to date, predict the future trajectory and inform future action we take, including crucially the development of ground-breaking new tests and treatments,” Hancock added.
The study will begin with a smaller pilot phase in England only.
When it comes to tracing, the UK is playing catch-up with other countries. Hancock said Wednesday that there was an NHS app in development and “we will introduce contact-tracing at large scale.”
It comes after Hancock’s predecessor Jeremy Hunt, who is now chairman of the UK’s Health Select Committee which scrutinizes the government, wrote Tuesday that mass contact tracing should be the “next national mission” in the UK’s battle with coronavirus.
In an op-ed in The Times of London, Hunt wrote: “We need every arm of the state, every spare civil servant, every local government town planner and every furloughed administrator turning their hand to the task” of contact tracing.
He argued that countries with the lowest death rates have generally been the biggest testers and that’s “because of what testing makes possible: quarantining of people with the virus, tracking down who they have been near, and if necessary isolating them as well.”
He said that by doing this on a huge scale — as has happened in South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong — you can do “much less damage to the economy than European or American-style mass lockdowns.”
The UK is due to review its current lockdown measures again in two weeks.
Ahead of that it is expected the government may update their guidance around the use of face masks, telling the public they can choose to wear a scarf or face covering but not to wear medical face masks. Hancock said Wednesday that the government will follow the advice of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies “and then we will implement that.”
“I can’t promise that we will give everybody free masks. I mean, that would be an extraordinary undertaking. And we do have to make sure we have supplies available especially for health and care staff where the scientific advice has been throughout that the wearing of masks is necessary in those circumstances,” Hancock explained.
There is a fear that recommending use of facemasks by the general public could lead to a shortage for frontline health workers. This comes as the government continues to face intense criticism over a critical shortage of personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers. Raab told Parliament on Wednesday that 69 National Health Service (NHS) workers with Covid-19 have now died.