In the aftermath of Ebola, which was the cause of 11 thousand deaths between 2014 and 2016, the scientists at Oxford began putting together a plan to take on the next big viral outbreak. They named a new, unknown infection “Disease X,” which they anticipated emerging as a surprise. Preparations began so that when the disease did appear, a vaccine could be developed in the shortest amount of time possible.
Developed in partnership with AstraZeneca, the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine’s technology has been previously used in candidate vaccines against the influenza virus, Zika virus, and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. Using a common cold virus that infects chimpanzees, scientists at Oxford developed a building block that can be used to develop vaccines against almost any virus. This vaccine framework allows for speedy vaccine development, much faster than vaccines developed from weakened or killed viral strains. The chimpanzee-infecting virus was genetically modified so that it cannot cause infections in humans, making it safer for vulnerable populations to take.
The MERS coronavirus outbreak in 2012 and the SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2002 helped scientists to understand the biology of coronaviruses. Previous research showed that spikes on the outer coat of a coronavirus are good targets for a vaccine, evidenced by the immune responses of previous studies. Once the genetic code of COVID-19 was made available, vaccine researchers were able to insert the genetic code of the spike into the vaccine’s building blocks.
Vaccine trials began in April 2020 with phase 1. During phase one, vaccine safety is tested in a small group of people before moving on to phase 2, which tests safety and efficacy. Once the first two stages have been completed, phase 3 trials commence in a large group of people to prove that it effectively protects people from COVID-19.
In Oxford’s phase 3 trials, 30,000 people volunteered to participate. The only thing that changed in the process of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 development was the time between trials. Typically a lot of time is spent writing grant applications, requesting approvals to conduct trials or recruiting volunteers. However, as the pandemic worsened, there was a huge scientific push and monetary support to get a vaccine out.
This vaccine comes at a point where it is needed most, especially as cases continue to rise across the world. It stands as evidence of the remarkable progress science can make when all efforts are united to a cause. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is a momentous achievement and we congratulate the scientists who have worked tirelessly to make it possible.