Human trials of a vaccine, developed by Oxford University, for the novel coronavirus began in the UK last week.
The UK government had pledged 20 million pounds to support 'ChAdOx1 nCoV-19' coronavirus vaccine trials by Oxford University's Jenner Institute.
The Oxford team is planning to test the vaccine on more than 6,000 people by the end of May, according to The New York Times.
On Monday, The New York Times reported the Oxford team's vaccine effort was "sprinting fastest" compared with similar research initiatives around the world. The New York Times revealed that the Oxford team's vaccine had made a promising start with immunising rhesus macaque monkeys.
The New York Times reported that six rhesus macaque monkeys were inoculated with the Oxford vaccine in March at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana. The monkeys were then exposed to "heavy quantities” of the coronavirus. Such exposure had "consistently sickened other monkeys in the lab", The New York Times explained.
"But more than 28 days later, all six were healthy," Vincent Munster, the researcher who conducted the test, told The New York Times.
“The rhesus macaque is pretty much the closest thing we have to humans,” Munster said.
While immunity in monkeys is no guarantee the vaccine will offer the same level of protection to human beings, the results have increased interest in the Oxford effort. Emilio Emini, a director of the vaccine programme at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told The New York Times that the Oxford programme was a "very, very fast clinical programme".
The New York Times reported that the first few million doses of the Oxford vaccine for coronavirus could be available by September, "at least several months ahead of any of the other announced efforts," if it proves to be effective in human clinical trials.
The Serum Institute of India is collaborating with Oxford University to manufacture the vaccine if the clinical trials are successful. Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla said earlier this week the company can "produce 5 million doses per month for the first 6 months, following which, we hope to scale up production to 10 million doses per month".
Interestingly, Emini argued that more than one vaccine was necessary against coronavirus as different vaccines have varied effects on different age groups. Moreover, multiple vaccines help minimise manufacturing complications.
"Scientists at the university’s Jenner Institute had a head-start on a vaccine, having proved in previous trials that similar inoculations—including one last year against an earlier coronavirus—were harmless to humans," The New York Times added.
The Oxford team's vaccine was developed by altering the genetic code of the virus, unlike the 'classic' method of using a weakened version of the pathogen to trigger an immune response. The New York Times explained, "in the technology that the institute is using, a different virus is modified first to neutralise its effects and then to make it mimic the one scientists seek to stop... Injected into the body, the harmless impostor can induce the immune system to fight and kill the targeted virus, providing protection".
The Oxford team is not the only group that is seeing progress with coronavirus vaccines based on genetics. "Two American companies, Moderna and Inovio, have started small clinical trials with technologies involving modified or otherwise manipulated genetic material," The New York Times noted.
A Chinese company, CanSino, is also using a method similar to the Oxford initiative. However, the Chinese research involves using a coronavirus strain from humans, not animals.