Coronavirus vaccine trials among projects boosted by £20m government funding

By Tom Pilgrim, PA

Vaccination trials are among a group of coronavirus research projects to be boosted by millions of pounds of government funding.

A total of six projects will share part of a £20 million pot made available to speed up the response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma announced the recipients of the first round of funding on Monday.

Two of the Government-backed projects aim to enable preclinical testing and clinical vaccine trials as well as help researchers develop manufacturing processes to produce a vaccine at a million-dose scale.

Other projects cover testing existing drugs against Covid-19, developing antibodies to target the disease and collecting patient data to answer urgent questions about it.

Mr Sharma said: “UK scientists and researchers have been working tirelessly on the development of treatments for coronavirus.

“The projects we are funding today will be vital in our work to support our valuable NHS and protect people’s lives.”

Some £2.2 million of funding will go to a team lead by Prof Sarah Gilbert from the University of Oxford who are already developing a new Covid-19 vaccine.

As a first stage, testing will take place in adults aged 18 to 50 years old, later expanding to include those over 50 and school-age children.

The vaccine is made from a harmless virus, an adenovirus, altered to produce the surface spike protein of the coronavirus after vaccination, to prime a person’s immune system to recognise and attack the coronavirus.

It uses the same technique as a vaccine the team previously developed for the closely-related Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) coronavirus, which showed promise in animal and early-stage human testing.

A further £0.4 million of funding will go to a team lead by Dr Sandy Douglas at the University of Oxford, who are developing manufacturing processes to produce adenovirus vaccines at a million-dose scale if clinical trials prove successful.

Elsewhere, £4.9 million of funding will go to work under Dr Kenneth Baillie of the University of Edinburgh, Prof Peter Openshaw at Imperial College London and Prof Calum Semple from the University of Liverpool.

Their project will recruit 1,300 UK coronavirus patients and collect samples and data to answer important questions on how it affects people.

A project under Prof Xiao-Ning Xu from Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Imperial College London, will receive £0.6 million for work on developing antibodies to target the disease.

A clinical trial to test if existing or new drugs can help patients hospitalised with coronavirus will received £2.1 million funding.

The project, led by Prof Peter Horby of the University of Oxford, will first test two HIV drug therapies: lopinavir-ritonavir and low-dose corticosteroids.

A further £0.3 million funding will go to a project under Profs Ultan Power and Ken Mills from Queens University Belfast who are testing a library of around 1,000 human-use approved drugs on cells in the laboratory.

They aim to see if any drugs can help reduce the effects of Covid-19 infection and help identify those suitable for further testing and clinical trials in 12 months.

The projects, which will run over a maximum 18-month period, are funded by the Department of Health and Social Care through the National Institute for Health Research, and by UK Research and Innovation.

The funding is additional to the £20 million for the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium to map how the disease spreads and behaves by using whole genome sequencing.

Elsewhere, researchers at the University of East Anglia have launched a project to 3D print ventilator parts, masks and other equipment to help in the the fight against coronavirus.

They are working with the tech community to access 3D printers and find skilled people to design and make the equipment at pace.