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Creating new vaccines

Gloved hand holding a petri dish

Even before the new coronavirus emerged, UKRI had strategically invested millions in vaccine development and manufacturing research.

Developing a vaccine is a complex, lengthy process with strict safety and ethics protocols. UKRI rapidly funded or redeployed funding to projects that could potentially deliver a vaccine for COVID-19 – and the progress has been impressive.

Two UKRI-funded vaccine development projects are now in the human trial stage, the opening of the new Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre has been brought forward by a year, and many more projects are underway to help find a vaccine.

Details of some of this work can be found on this page.

You can also watch more videos about COVID-19: the road to a vaccine.

Ready for rapid vaccine response

The ability to move quickly in developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus will be dependent on the resources that we already have in place for vaccine development.

For example, the Medical Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council provide strategic support for early vaccine development through the Global Challenges Research Fund vaccine R&D networks, worth £12.4 million. These seek to address gaps in discovery and pre-clinical development of vaccines.

To support later stage development, the councils are providing support for the Department of Health and Social Care’s £120 million UK Vaccine Network.

The network brings together industry, academia and relevant funding bodies to make targeted investments in specific vaccines and vaccine technology for 12 priority diseases that have the potential to cause an epidemic.

University of Oxford’s vaccine

In January, scientists unravelled the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2: the coronavirus behind COVID-19. This is when researchers, led by Professor Sarah Gilbert at the University of Oxford, began work on their vaccine.

Now, with £2.2 million from UKRI’s ‘rapid response’ coronavirus funding call, humans are being given the vaccine in clinical trials.

The vaccine produces its effect through a viral-vector made from a chimpanzee adenovirus – the type of virus that causes the common cold.

Professor Gilbert’s team modified the chimpanzee adenovirus to create a viral-vector that is safe in humans and functions as a vessel to deliver genetic code into cells inside the body.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus displays spikes on its surface, and it is the genetic code for the spikes that is inserted into the adenovirus vectors.

Once injected, cells in the body receive the instructions to start producing spikes, triggering the immune system to respond as if it is encountering the real virus and making antibodies.

The adenovirus vector cannot multiply, so it does not stay in the body. However, if the vaccine works, the immune system would have the antibodies needed to detect and destroy novel coronaviruses to stop people getting COVID-19.

Imperial College London’s vaccine

A team of scientists led by Professor Robin Shattock at Imperial College London received funding to progress their vaccine project through all the necessary safety and effectiveness studies into early clinical trials.

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, uses genetic material called RNA, which stands for ribonucleic acid, and is stored inside a shell with ‘spikes’ on the outside.

Once the coronaviruses have invaded cells in the lungs, this RNA provides the instructions that the hijacked cells use to create everything the virus needs to multiply and spread. Scientists now know the full genetic code, including which bit of the RNA codes for the spikes.

Professor Shattock’s team has isolated and manipulated the RNA code to produce copies of the spikes that are a better target for the immune system to boost the response.

When the vaccine is injected, the muscle cells receive the RNA and the instruction to make spikes. For success, the immune system must respond just as it would to the live virus and create antibodies that provide immunity.

Leeds and York researchers join forces to pinpoint COVID-19 protein

Researchers at universities in Leeds and York have refocused their efforts on work that will help towards a vaccine and antibody test for COVID-19.

They’re trying to produce a particular part of COVID-19 that protects the virus genome, which contains all the information the virus needs to reproduce. A critical part of the work is producing a 3-D image of the protein, which is where the Leeds researchers come in.

The cryo-electron microscopes at Leeds are the only ones of their kind in the north of England. Samples of the protein are frozen down to minus 180 degrees and the machine then takes thousands of images to examine the protein in fine detail.

The researchers hope that capturing an image of the proteins at close to atomic level will help progress the development of tests and therapeutics.

Oxford ramps up the production scale

Scientists led by Dr Sandy Douglas at the University of Oxford received UKRI funding to develop manufacturing processes that ramp up vaccine production to a million-dose scale.

Dr Douglas is working with Professor Sarah Gilbert’s team, which is currently testing its new vaccine in human volunteers.

The scale of the pandemic poses huge challenges for vaccine manufacturing. By starting work on the processes during the clinical trial stage the team hopes that, if approved, vaccine doses would be available more rapidly.

Public Health England’s new vaccine safety testing model

Before a new vaccine can get close to being tested in humans, there are many safety and ethics processes that must be carried out.

Professor Miles Carroll’s team at Public Health England is developing a non-human primate animal model in macaques to ensure the best possible data is available on the safety and effectiveness of new vaccines and therapies.

Previous research into vaccines for SARS, a disease also caused by a type of coronavirus, has given scientists valuable insight into the possible challenges ahead for COVID-19 vaccine development.

Having animal models that mimic the human immune response as closely as possible helps scientists to identify issues and areas they can improve upon. This greatly reduces the risk to the first human volunteers testing the vaccine and improves the chances of success.

Making vaccines accessible everywhere

Most vaccines must be kept cold throughout their journey from the manufacturer to the clinic. Unfortunately, this creates major challenges in reaching remote communities with poor transport links, or places where there are inadequate facilities to refrigerate the vaccine.

With support from the Future Vaccine Manufacturing Hub – funded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council – UK biotech start-up Imophoron developed ‘ADDomer’,  a novel vaccine platform.

Imophoron is now working on a vaccine for COVID-19 using its technology, which enables vaccines to be transported without needing to maintain a certain temperature.

The team believes the immune system will react as if it encountered the real virus and create antibodies, killing the novel coronavirus when it enters the body in the future and preventing COVID-19.

Last updated: 28 October 2020

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