Race for virus vaccine picks up as Germany, UK begin human trials

Though 150 development projects worldwide are working on inoculation, just 5 clinical trials on people have been approved

Volunteer scientists process samples taken from people tested for the novel coronavirus, at a laboratory recently dedicated for the processing of COVID-19 samples by Medicines Discovery Catapult, at The Lighthouse Lab at Alderley Park in Cheshire, northern England, on April 22, 2020. (Paul Ellis/AFP)
Volunteer scientists process samples taken from people tested for the novel coronavirus, at a laboratory recently dedicated for the processing of COVID-19 samples by Medicines Discovery Catapult, at The Lighthouse Lab at Alderley Park in Cheshire, northern England, on April 22, 2020. (Paul Ellis/AFP)

The race to develop an effective vaccine against the novel has coronavirus gathered pace in recent days, as clinical trials on humans were approved in Germany and launched in the UK.

Though there are now around 150 development projects worldwide, the German and British plans are among only five clinical trials on humans which have been approved across the globe.

In Britain, volunteers in a trial at the University of Oxford are set to be given on Thursday the first dose of a potential vaccine based on a virus found in chimpanzees.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, German regulatory body PEI green-lighted the country’s first trials on human volunteers for a vaccine developed by German firm Biontech and US giant Pfizer.

The Oxford trial, run by the university’s Jenner Institute, will involve 510 volunteers aged between 18 and 55 in the first phase.

Research director Professor Sarah Gilbert estimated that it has around an 80 percent chance of being successful.

An airport official checks the temperature of a British national queueing to enter the the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport to leave Bangladesh on a special flight during a government-imposed shut-down as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Dhaka on April 21, 2020. (MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / AFP)

The institute aims to develop a million doses of the vaccine by September, so as to distribute it as quickly as possible after approval.

The Oxford trial is part of a nationwide effort in the UK which since Friday has been spearheaded by a government taskforce.

In Germany, meanwhile, the PEI said its approval of the Biontech trial marked a “significant step” in making a vaccine available as soon as possible.

In the first phase, it will see “200 healthy volunteers aged between 18 and 55 years” vaccinated with variants of the vaccine, while the second phase could see the inclusion of volunteers who belonged to high-risk groups.

On Wednesday, Biontech CEO Ugur Sahin told a press conference that tests would begin at the end of April.

He added that the firm expected to have collected first data by the end of June or beginning of July.

Biontech also said that they and Pfizer hoped to gain regulatory approval soon to test the same vaccine candidate in the US.

Demonstrators participate in a vehicle caravan with a sign reading ‘Trust in God not vaccines’ outside City Hall, calling on California officials to re-open the economy amidst the coronavirus pandemic, on April 22, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)

The PEI meanwhile claimed that further clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccine candidates will start in Germany in the next few months.

There are currently no approved vaccines or medication for the COVID-19 disease, which has killed more than 170,000 people worldwide and infected more than two million.

Experts estimate that it will take at least 12 to 18 months to develop a new vaccine.

Last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said a vaccine was the only thing that would return “normalcy” to the world, and called for development projects to be accelerated.

A UN resolution adopted on Monday, meanwhile, called for “equitable, efficient and timely” access to any vaccine that might be developed.

Aside from Biontech and Oxford, three other clinical trials on humans have been approved worldwide since mid-March, with Chinese and US developers among the first to move.

A nurse wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) in a tent on the grounds of the Sophiahemmet private hospital, perform tests on a patient to see if she has symptoms of COVID-19 on April 22, 2020 in Stockholm. (Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

Beijing approved the first trial for a vaccine developed by the military-backed Academy of Military Medical Sciences and Hong Kong-listed biotech firm CanSino Bio on March 16.

That day the US drug developer Moderna said it had begun human tests for their vaccine with the US National Institutes of Health.

Another US lab, San Diego-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals, began first phase human trials on April 6.

Yet while Biontech hailed what it called a “global development program” on Wednesday, the search for a vaccine has also been a cause of friction between countries.

Last month a newspaper report alleged that the US had attempted to buy exclusive rights to vaccine research being carried out by CureVac, another German firm.

Though CureVac and US officials dismissed it as unfounded, the newspaper report caused outrage in Berlin, and prompted Economy Minister Peter Altmaier to declare that “Germany is not for sale.”

FDA approves at-home testing

Scientists have also been racing to improve testing of the virus.

US health regulators on Tuesday approved the first coronavirus test that allows people to collect their own sample at home, a new approach that could help expand testing options in most states.

The test from LabCorp will initially only be available to health care workers and first responders under a doctor’s orders. The sample will still have to be shipped for processing back to LabCorp, which operates diagnostic labs throughout the US.

Allowing people to self-swab at home would help reduce infection risks for front-line health care workers and help conserve protective gear.

Nurse Sylke Pflugmacher takes a sample at a testing point for medical staff members at the community hospital in Magdeburg, eastern Germany, on April 16, 2020 during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Ronny Hartmann / AFP)

For the home test, people are initially screened with an online questionnaire. If authorized by a physician, LabCorp will ship a testing kit to their home. The kit includes cotton swabs, a collection tube, an insulated pouch and box to ship the specimen back to LabCorp. To take a sample, a cotton swab is swirled in each nostril. The test results are posted online to a secure company website.

A man in a mask walks past a mural of a hand on the side of a building in Midtown New York City April 22, 2020. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)

The company said it will make the test available in the coming weeks. Each kit will cost $119. The kits will not be available in Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. Those states have laws prohibiting testing with at-home sample collection kits, according to LabCorp.

Initially, the Food and Drug Administration required health care workers wearing masks, gloves and other protective gear to collect all samples from potential coronavirus patients, usually by sticking a long swab down their nose or throat.

More recently, the FDA has endorsed the self-swab method. LabCorp’s test is the first that allows it to be done at home without professional supervision.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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