At lunchtime on Tuesday, Sir John Bell received a call telling him that the groundbreaking Oxford coronavirus vaccine trial would, regretfully, be paused. Hours later, news of an urgent investigation into an “unexplained illness” in one of the trial volunteers began spreading across the world. It was, as White House adviser Anthony Fauci described it, “unfortunate”.
If the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency had come back and said it was all over, “then it would all be over”, says Sir John, the Government’s leading life sciences adviser. “That’s just the way the game works.”
But, this weekend, that wasn’t what happened. Instead, now the trial is back on. Following an assessment, the MHRA said it was safe to continue with work.
The 68-year-old Canadian, who sits on the UK’s vaccine taskforce, hadn’t been anxious.
“When I got the call from Andrew Pollard [who leads the project], I told him look, fine, this stuff happens in clinical trials all the time. People who don’t do clinical trials see it and think, this is a disaster. But, when you’ve got so many people in the study, it’s really not very surprising to be honest.”
Sir John has more experience in this area than most. As one of the world’s top immunologists and Oxford University’s regius professor of medicine, he knows how these things can go.
The majority of vaccines take around eight years to develop. “And we’ve been at this for just eight months.”
These is much to be optimistic about with Oxford’s vaccine candidate. Early indications have been good. Recently, the vaccine progressed to Phase 3 testing, which meant it was able to be trialled on large numbers of patients across different geographies.
By last week, around 30,000 people in the UK, the US, Brazil and South Africa had taken part.
With the trial now continuing, a vaccine could be ready by the end of the year.
“We’re not going to beat the second wave now,” says Sir John, whose work in Oxford helped secure the vaccine manufacturing tie-up with pharma giant AstraZeneca.
Last week, Matt Hancock told LBC that AstraZeneca had already started to produce doses of the vaccine. “We’ve got 30 million doses already contracted for with AstraZeneca,” Hancock had said.
Sir John says, even with this, “we’re probably right at the front end of the second wave now, but a vaccine might arrive towards the end of the second wave”.
“We’re probably about three to four months ahead of anybody else with a practical vaccine”.
Elsewhere in the world, trials are progressing at speed. China has a number of vaccine candidates which are at the Phase 3 stage, and last month it emerged that scientists in the country had been secretly testing vaccines on key workers.
Russia, meanwhile, said it had approved the world’s first coronavirus vaccine last month, with Vladimir Putin saying it had “passed all the needed checks”.