The first results from human trials of a vaccine against COVID-19 have given a glimmer of hope after a US firm’s study produced positive results in a group of eight volunteers.
The results — which came a day after the British government revealed a deal to secure 30 million doses of a rival Oxford University vaccine, should it be successful — showed that each of the participants produced an antibody response on a par with that seen in people who have had the disease.
They also suggest that the vaccine is safe for use in humans.
Part of a first-stage trial of 45 people run by US company Moderna, the results are from a preliminary safety study and do not demonstrate that the treatment will work.
However, they will be a sign of encouragement for experts and governments desperate for a breakthrough in the battle to bring an end to the pandemic — widely believed to be impossible without a vaccine.
Although both programs are in the early stages, the findings also appear to put the US research ahead of the UK’s. While the Oxford vaccine was shown in a safety study to protect macaque monkeys against pneumonia, it did not stop infection — which could leave people liable to spread the virus, even if they do not get sick themselves.
With the backing of the British government, the Oxford group is partnering with drug company AstraZeneca to make 30 million doses for the UK — if the vaccine works. It is to receive ￡65.5 million (US$80.2 million) to fund its work.
Imperial College London, which also has a vaccine under development, has been awarded ￡8.5 million.
In the US study, run by the US National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, all eight volunteers made neutralizing antibodies, which were tested in human cells in the lab and stopped the novel coronavirus from replicating.
The higher the vaccine dose, the more antibodies the volunteer produced.
However, as with antibody tests, there are still questions over whether this response is enough to prevent people from being infected by the virus. This approach does not stimulate another arm of the immune response, from the T-cells. It is also not known whether an antibody response would last.
Many companies and institutions worldwide are racing to develop a vaccine in record time, using different approaches. The WHO has a list of 76 contenders.
Moderna was the first in the world into clinical trials with a ribonucleic acid (RNA) vaccine, which uses a segment of genetic material from the virus itself, called messenger DNA, to provoke the immune system into making antibodies.
Imperial College is also developing an RNA vaccine, although its approach is different.
Robin Shattock, the head of mucosal infection and immunity at Imperial College who is leading the college’s trials, said that the Moderna findings are encouraging.
“While it will be important to scrutinies the actual data, the reported findings are in line with expectations that vaccine candidates should provide levels of neutralizing antibodies that are at least equivalent to convalescent subjects,” he said.
“This is a promising start, but efficacy data will be key, followed by an ability to scale in a manner that provides global access should this vaccine be successful,” he added.
Moderna has only released results for the youngest group of volunteers. It intends to press ahead to the next stage of human trials involving 600 people shortly, with a much bigger trial involving thousands set to begin in July.
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