Coronavirus: How scientists are racing to find a Covid-19 vaccine

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

  • Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

The first steps towards a coronavirus vaccine in the UK start next week, but a vaccine for all is still a year away at best.

Scientists at Public Health England invited the cameras in to their usually off-limits Porton Down research labs.

They’re the highest containment laboratories in the UK that handle the really nasty stuff, like Ebola, Marburg disease and the much milder, but much more threatening SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 is very similar to SARS. While it was a one-hit-wonder in the world of epidemics, the worry caused by SARS meant lots of candidate vaccines were developed against it. And these have given the scientific community a real head start in developing one for COVID-19.

Scientists are looking for a coronavirus vaccine - and quick. Credit: ITV News

There are now 41 candidate vaccines listed on the WHO’s website.

There’s a few clear leaders in the race.

Vaccines based on the RNA (or translated version of the DNA) of the virus itself. These are being made by companies like Innovio in the US and the vaccine that was first to go into humans in Seattle last week made by another US company Moderna. A team at Imperial College in London is also developing an RNA vaccine which may have advantages over these.

RNA and DNA vaccines have the advantage of being quick to develop and likely to be safe. But there are no vaccines of this type currently on the market against diseases. So no one knows if they will be the most successful against COVID-19.

Then there are more traditional vaccines, based on existing technologies that have been used for other diseases. The Institute Pasteur in France is working on converting its measles-virus based vaccine against SARS to work against COVID-19.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know

The vaccine they’ll be testing first at Porton Down is one developed by the Jenner Institute in at the University of Oxford, where they’re repurposing their adenovirus-based vaccine to work against COVID-19. The advantage these types of vaccine have over the faster-to-develop DNA and RNA type vaccines is that they are tried and tested. If the faster approaches don’t work, it’s likely the more traditional vaccines with a proven track record in other diseases will.

As one researcher leading a COVID-19 vaccine development programme told me recently, “it’s not a race to be first, it’s a race to get a vaccine that works.”

And even once a vaccine is developed, and passes initial safety tests in animals and humans, it takes many more months to be mass produced in order to do a larger trial in volunteers to see if it will work. For COVID-19 these trials are most likely to start with healthcare workers whole are healthy but being exposed to the virus. At least that way the trial will be of benefit to controlling the outbreak if the vaccine seems to work.

But a vaccine won’t be available for use in the community for many months after this “efficacy” trial is completed. So while large vaccine trials may begin in humans towards the end of this year it’s almost certain that a vaccine for all wont be available until well into next year at the earliest.