By Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON (Reuters) - Late-stage trial results of a potential COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca could be presented this year as the British government prepares for a possible vaccination rollout in late December or early 2021.
A vaccine is seen as a game-changer in the battle against the coronavirus, which has killed more than 1.2 million people worldwide, shuttered swathes of the global economy and turned normal life upside down for billions of people.
There are more than 200 candidates under development and the vaccine being developed by Oxford and licensed to British drugmaker AstraZeneca is seen as a front-runner.
"I'm optimistic that we could reach that point before the end of this year," Oxford Vaccine Trial Chief Investigator Andrew Pollard said of the chances of presenting trial results.
Pollard told British lawmakers that establishing whether or not the vaccine worked would likely come this year, after which the data would have to be carefully reviewed by regulators and then a political decision made on who should receive it.
"Our bit - we are getting closer to but we are not there yet," Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said.
Asked if he expected the vaccine would start to be deployed before Christmas, he said: "There is a small chance of that being possible but I just don't know."
The National Health Service (NHS) in England is preparing to start distributing possible COVID-19 vaccines before Christmas in case one is ready by the end of the year.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be one of the first from big pharma to be submitted for regulatory approval, along with Pfizer and BioNTech's candidate.
"If I put on my rose-tinted specs, I would hope that we will see positive interim data from both Oxford and from Pfizer/BioNTech in early December and if we get that then I think we have got the possibility of deploying by the year end," Kate Bingham, the chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, told lawmakers.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was the prospect of a vaccine in the first quarter of 2021. AstraZeneca is presenting its third quarter financial results on Thursday.
Work on the Oxford viral vector vaccine, called AZD1222 or ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, began in January. It is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus that causes infections in chimpanzees.
The chimpanzee cold virus has been genetically changed to include the genetic sequence of the so-called spike protein which the coronavirus uses to gain entry to human cells. The hope is that the human body will then attack the novel coronavirus if it sees it again.
If Oxford's vaccine works, it could eventually allow the world to return to some measure of normality.
Asked what success looked like, Pollard said: "Good is having vaccines that have significant efficacy - so whether, I mean, that is 50, 60, 70, 80 percent, whatever the figure is - is an enormous achievement.
"It's a complete game changer and a success if we meet those efficacy end points," he said, adding it would relieve pressure on the health system.
But Pollard and Bingham agreed that the world would not return to normal immediately. Asked about the chances of a vaccine that would wipe out the coronavirus next year, Bingham said the prospects were "very slim".
"(But the chances) to get a vaccine that has an effect of both reducing illness, and reducing mortality (are) very high," Bingham said, adding she was more than 50% confident there would be such a vaccine by early summer.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alexander Smith)