Australia’s hopes for a coronavirus vaccine are under threat after trials in the UK were paused over major safety concerns.
Late-stage studies of AstraZenec’s vaccine candidate are on hold after a patient became seriously ill on Tuesday.
The company is investigating if the illness, which has not been specified, is a serious side effect or had nothing to do with the shot.
Australia’s hopes for a coronavirus vaccine are under threat after trials in the UK were paused over safety concerns. Pictured: A scientist works on the vaccine at Oxford University
Late-stage studies of AstraZenec’s vaccine candidate are on temporary hold after a patient became seriously ill on Tuesday. Pictured: Residents wearing masks in Melbourne
The federal and state governments have repeatedly said we will have to live with the virus until a vaccine is rolled out.
But the jab being developed at Oxford University is the only overseas candidate that Australia has agreed to buy while other developed countries have signed several deals.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under fire for ‘putting all of Australia’s eggs in one basket’.
Labor’s health spokesman Chris Bowen said: ‘The federal government needs to invest urgently in a range of potential Covid-19 vaccines.’
He pointed out that 18 countries have signed 51 deals to buy various vaccine candidates. The US has six and the UK has five.
Australia has also agreed to buy a vaccine being developed at the University of Queensland – but it only started human trials in July.
There are 37 vaccines in human trials around the world and Australia is trying to buy more of them.
The US has made six agreements with companies to get access to a vaccine. Pictured: President Trump and wife Melania
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (pictured with his wife Jenny) has come under fire for ‘putting all of Australia’s eggs in one basket’ with the Oxford vaccine. He also also agreed to buy a vaccine from UQ – but it only started human trials in July
Asked on Monday why more deals had not already been signed, Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia has the ‘finest medical expert panel in the world’ which is choosing to buy the ‘most prospective and the most available’ vaccines.
The minister is due to release a statement shortly.
Health Department Secretary Professor Brendan Murphy said the Oxford vaccine was ‘the most advanced’ and was ‘looking pretty good’ before it was delayed.
‘We’re also part of the COVAX multicountry vaccine buying club. And we’re also specifically looking at a range of other potential candidates,’ he said on Monday.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth said the pause did ‘not mean that the Oxford vaccine is dead’.
‘But it is a serious adverse reaction, and it needs to be investigated,’ he said.
He reassured Australians that any vaccine that is approved would be safe.
‘In a way, this re-enforces that despite the accelerated nature of vaccine development, safety is at the forefront of everybody’s mind,’ he said.
WHICH COUNTRIES HAVE ORDERED OXFORD’S VACCINE ALREADY?
The UK is the host of research and development efforts of the vaccine, which has been developed by researchers in Oxford and will be manufactured by AstraZeneca, a company based in Cambridge.
The British Government has ordered 100million doses of the jab and has already started manufacturing them so they’re ready to go if and when clinical trials are successful. The price paid has not been disclosed.
The US Government has ordered 100million doses of the vaccine and contributed $1.2billion (£910m) to the research and development of the jab.
European Union (EU)
The European Commission has agreed a deal for 300million doses of the vaccine if its clinical trials work, with the option to buy a further 100million. The deal has been made on behalf of countries in the EU. The amount of money spent is unknown.
Australia has confirmed it ordered enough doses of the vaccine to give one to its entire population of 25million people.
One company in China has agreed a deal with AstraZeneca to make at least 100million doses of the vaccine.
Shenzhen Kangtai Biological Products, based in the city of Shenzhen, will increase capacity to 200m per year by the end of 2021.
A Russian company, R-Pharm, also has a deal to produce and distribute the vaccine, but it is unclear how many it will make or what it will pay to AstraZeneca.
Brazilian officials have set aside $360million (£274m) for at least 100million doses of the vaccine. Brazil is currently in one of the worst Covid-19 crises in the world with more than 3.6million official cases so far and 114,000 deaths.
Last week the government agreed to buy around 30million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, including 3.8million in January if trials proved successful.
But Mr Bowen said Australia ‘was behind the eight ball’ on securing a vaccine.
He said: ‘The United States signed its first such deal in mid-March, the United Kingdom in mid-May.
He warned the AstraZeneca vaccine may not be approved and said the government should be ‘pursuing other deals and other arrangements as well as they go.’
In a statement issued Tuesday evening, AstraZeneca said its ‘standard review process triggered a pause to vaccination to allow review of safety data.’
The company didn’t reveal any information about the possible side effect except to call it ‘a potentially unexplained illness.’
Trial holds are not uncommon, but it is a blow to worldwide hopes for a jab to be ready in the coming months, as the AstraZeneca shot was considered by many – including the World Health Organisation – to be the leading candidate worldwide.
An AstraZeneca spokesperson confirmed the pause in vaccinations covers studies in the US and other countries.
Late last month, AstraZeneca began recruiting 30,000 people in the U.S. for its largest study of the vaccine. It also is testing the vaccine, developed by Oxford University, in thousands of people in Britain, and in smaller studies in Brazil and South Africa.
Two other vaccines are in huge, final-stage tests in the United States, one made by Moderna Inc. and the other by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech.
Those two vaccines work differently than AstraZeneca’s, and the studies already have recruited about two-thirds of the needed volunteers.
AstraZeneca pointed out that it’s possible the problem could be a coincidence; illnesses of all sorts could arise in studies of thousands of people.
‘We are working to expedite the review of the single event to minimize any potential impact on the trial timeline,’ the company statement said.
Dr Ashish Jha of Brown University said via Twitter that the significance of the interruption was unclear but that he was ‘still optimistic’ that an effective vaccine will be found in the coming months.
‘But optimism isn’t evidence,’ he wrote. ‘Let’s let science drive this process.’
During the third and final stage of testing, researchers look for any signs of possible side effects that may have gone undetected in earlier patient research.
Because of their large size, the studies are considered the most important phase of study for picking less common side effects and establishing safety.
The trials also assess effectiveness by tracking who gets sick and who doesn’t between patients getting the vaccine and those receiving a dummy shot.
The development came the same day that AstraZeneca and eight other drugmakers issued an unusual pledge, vowing to uphold the highest ethical and scientific standards in developing their vaccines.
An AstraZeneca spokesperson confirmed the pause in vaccinations covers studies in the US and other countries (stock image)