University of Oxford team in race to find working coronavirus vaccine in six months

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

For all of us living in lockdown, watching friends and loved ones becoming sick or dying from Covid-19, six months seems a long time to wait. But in the context of developing a vaccine, it's mind-bogglingly fast.

Typically it takes between 10 and 15 years to develop a working vaccine. However, a team at the University of Oxford developing a Covid-19 vaccine claim they might be able to have one ready for general use by September.

And there are some good reasons to hope the Oxford team's incredible claim is credible.

Scientists around the world are trying to create a coronavirus vaccine. Credit: PA

First, the approach they've taken means they don't have to start from scratch. Similar to a car company rolling out a new model based on the chassis of an existing one, their Covid-19 vaccine is based on a design they've already used to develop working vaccines against malaria, TB and, most importantly, a close relative of Covid-19 called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

That means unless something weird is going on with our immune response to Covid-19, it should be effective.

Second, because the vaccine has proved itself to be safe in other diseases, it's possible to fast track this one - for example, by carrying out necessary animal tests in almost in parallel with human tests because there are unlikely to be any unforeseen safety concerns.

Tests will need to be carried out before the vaccine can be put into wider use. Credit: PA

It still makes the role of the first human volunteers to receive it no less brave and remarkable. At the end of this month, around 500 volunteers aged between 18 and 55 will be given the vaccine, or a dummy vaccine to test it for any adverse reactions and see if it correctly teaches their immune systems to make antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 the virus that causes Covid-19.

If all looks good, the age range will be extended to those in their 70s then the over-70s - the age group that's the main target population for the vaccine when it is ready. They then plan to vaccinate around 5000 volunteers with either vaccine or dummy vaccine to prove its effectiveness.

Their best-case-scenario is to have that work concluded by September and be able to roll out the vaccine for those who need it.

The Oxford team's approach is not the only game in town. There are 51 candidate vaccines registered with the World Health Organisation. Oxford's approach, however, is one of a handful globally that are the most likely to deliver an effective vaccine, in a relevant time-frame.

But a lot can, and sometimes does, go wrong along the way in research projects on this scale, which is why the team behind the Oxford vaccine, say they are happy to not be the only horse in the race to develop one.

The more vaccines being developed globally, the greater the chance one will be ready in time to save lives, and ultimately consign Covid-19 to the history books.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know