Researchers begin trials of COVID-19 vaccine

In this file photo taken on February 10, 2020 Doctor Paul McKay, who is working on an vaccine for the 2019-nCoV strain of the novel coronavirus poses for a photograph using a pipette expresses coronavirus onto surface protein to apply cell cultures, in a research lab at Imperial College School of Medicine (ICSM) in London on February 10, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 23 May 2020

Researchers begin trials of COVID-19 vaccine

  • Oxford group could have 1 million doses ready by September if successful
  • The trial, now in its second phase following preliminary testing on a small sample size of 160 patients, will involve people of all age demographics

LONDON: A team of researchers has begun recruiting volunteers for clinical trials of a vaccine against COVID-19, while another team has started work on a treatment that may help critically ill patients recover from the disease.

Research at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, carried out in conjunction with an organization called the Oxford Vaccine Group, has been ongoing since January, with scientists now looking to recruit in excess of 10,000 people to take part in further trials following preliminary efforts in April.
The trial, now in its second phase following preliminary testing on a small sample size of 160 patients, will involve people of all age demographics — from children older than 5 years to the elderly — to help test the effectiveness of the vaccine, called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, in a wider variety of people.
The vaccine — which was developed using an altered virus that affects chimpanzees, combined with the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, SARS-CoV-2 — had positive effects in animal trials.
It will now be given to subjects alongside a licensed vaccine, MenACWY, which is used to combat meningitis and blood poisoning, which will serve as a “control comparison.”
It is one of only four major vaccine trials currently taking place worldwide, though over 100 experimental vaccines are known to be in development.
The head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, Prof. Andrew Pollard, said: “The clinical studies are progressing very well, and we are now initiating studies to evaluate how well the vaccine induces immune responses in older adults, and to test whether it can provide protection in the wider population.”
Preparation for mass production of the vaccine is already underway in anticipation of the trial proving successful.
The Oxford team has said it expects to have around a million units of the vaccine ready for use by September should that prove to be the case.
This week, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca said it had the capacity to make a billion doses of the Oxford vaccine, and had secured an agreement to produce at least 400 million doses.
Meanwhile, scientists working at King’s College, London, as well as the city’s Francis Crick Institute and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital, have started clinical trials of a drug called interleukin 7 to test its effects on combating COVID-19.
Interleukin 7 is known to boost a certain kind of human immune system cell, known as a T-cell, which is vital for clearing the body of infection.
A common theme among particularly serious cases of COVID-19 is a low T-cell count, though it is not yet known why. It is hoped that the introduction of the drug to patients suffering low counts may aid their recovery. The Crick Institute’s Prof. Adrian Hayday said: “They (the T-cells) are trying to protect us, but the virus seems to be doing something that’s pulling the rug from under them, because their numbers (in tested patients) have declined dramatically.”
The team believes that as well as boosting T-cell levels in critical patients, the findings of the trial may help develop a “fingerprint test” to check T-cell levels in the blood, which could help identify at an early stage patients at risk of developing more critical symptoms.
The team also hopes it will lead to the development of a treatment specifically aimed at reversing the effects of T-cell decline in COVID-19 patients.
“The virus that has caused this completely earth-changing emergency is unique — it’s different. It is something unprecedented,” said Hayday. “This virus is really doing something distinct, and future research — which we will start immediately — needs to find out the mechanism by which this virus is having these effects.”


Afghan govt frees Taliban prisoners as truce holds for second day

Updated 37 min 52 sec ago

Afghan govt frees Taliban prisoners as truce holds for second day

  • Ghani said his administration was also ready to hold peace talks with the Taliban

KABUL: Afghan authorities released 100 Taliban prisoners Monday as part of the government's response to a surprise, three-day ceasefire the insurgents called to mark the Eid al-Fitr festival.
The pause in fighting, only the second of its kind in Afghanistan's nearly 19-year-old war, appeared to be holding on day two after the government welcomed the truce by announcing plans to release up to 2,000 Taliban inmates.
President Ashraf Ghani said his administration was also ready to hold peace talks with the Taliban, seen as key to ending the war in the impoverished country.
"The government of Afghanistan has today released 100 Taliban prisoners from Bagram prison," National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal told AFP.
He said the prisoner release was to "help the peace process" and will continue until 2,000 prisoners are freed.
Faisal said there had been no reports of any ceasefire violations so far, adding that authorities plan to release insurgent prisoners in batches of 100 daily.
"We hope this will eventually lead to a lasting peace that the people of Afghanistan so much desire and deserve," he said.
In the northern city of Kunduz, which the Taliban attacked just days ago, calm prevailed as residents celebrated Eid at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
"Just two days ago panic had set in the city," said Atiqullah, a shopkeeper from Kunduz.
"Today, you go out and feel as if there is no more fighting. People are actually celebrating Eid."
The current ceasefire is the first initiated by the Taliban. The only other comparable pause came over Eid in 2018, and was first offered by Ghani.
The normally restive southern province of Uruzgan was also calm, police said.
"There was non-stop fighting every single day, but since the ceasefire was announced not a single shot has been fired," said Haji Lal Agha, the provincial police chief.
"It is especially good for the residents of Trinkot who would hear the sound of gunfire every day," he added, referring to the provincial capital.
There were no reports of fighting from Kandahar, once a bastion for the Taliban, and the southeast province of Khost was also peaceful, police said.
"We are carefully monitoring the ceasefire and the situation, and there has not been any major activity by the enemy since the ceasefire was announced," interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said.
He said they were, however, investigating a mortar attack on Sunday in Laghman province that killed five civilians.
Violence had escalated since the Taliban signed a deal with Washington in February to withdraw all US forces from the country by next year.
The agreement also set the stage for intra-Afghan peace talks and stipulated that the government would first release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants would free about 1,000 national security personnel.
Before Sunday's announcement to free up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a "goodwill gesture", Kabul had already released about 1,000 Taliban inmates while the insurgents had freed about 300 Afghan security force captives.
The Taliban insist Kabul must release all 5,000 members as agreed in the deal with the US.
"This process should be completed in order to remove hurdles in the way of commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has welcomed the ceasefire, but insists the freed Taliban prisoners should not return to the battlefield.