A race is speeding up in laboratories around the world to create a coronavirus vaccine to prevent deaths and kick-start the economy.

Virology expert Dr Rich Stanton, of Cardiff University, said he was “cautiously hopeful”.

But he said the process from beginning to end normally took 10 to 20 years.

“The fastest vaccine to be made, I think, took five years,” he said.

This could potentially be compressed into 18 months, he said, if everything fell into place.

“If any one of those things doesn’t happen, then the timescale gets pushed back,” said Dr Stanton.

“Unfortunately, the only way to know if it’ll work is to try it and see.”

A team at Oxford University – now backed by UK Government funding – has started a human trial, and said it hoped a million doses could be ready by September.

Dr Stanton said around 70 potential coronavirus vaccines were being trialled around the world.

“There is a huge amount of pressure to get this work done effectively and quickly,” he said.

“Science is quite competitive – in a lot of areas there is only a prize for first place.”

He added: “It sounds a horrible thing to say, but it’s a really exciting time for people like me.

“Suddenly the stuff we have been working on for years has been thrust into the spotlight.

“I think people will start to understand the value of vaccines – there has been some pushback in recent years.

“Viruses are dangerous. Vaccines are a really good way of controlling them, and making a huge difference to our quality of life.”

Dr Rich Stanton, who is researching antibodies which protect against the coronavirus

The 43-year-old reader in virology said there were two parts to your immune system – innate and adaptive.

“The innate part is the first part,” he explained. “The minute you’re infected, it recognises something is wrong.

“The adaptive part is much more specific. It’s saying, ‘This is what the virus looks like and this is how we will control it.’

“Between 10 days to a few weeks later it will generate a response.”

It is during that gap between the innate and adaptive responses that we get ill.

To create a vaccine, virologists and immunologists traditionally modified a virus in a way that trained the host’s immune response to recognise and destroy it in the future.

Dr Stanton said the newer approach was to only take a bit of the virus, or one of its proteins, or the DNA which encoded that protein, and use that – sometimes by inserting it into a safer virus – to induce the required response.

Any new vaccine starts in a laboratory – so right now there will be thousands of technicians at work on Covid-19.

Dr Stanton said: “You need to answer two questions to start with: which bit of the immune system are you hoping to train? And which bit of the virus are you hoping to use?

“You need to do a whole lot of work.”

Safety and the vaccine’s effectiveness – or efficacy – were crucial.

Dr Stanton said the next part of the process was testing the potential vaccine on animals, such as mice, and seeing if it produced the correct immune response and offered protection.

Three phases of clinical trials follow.

The first trial is on a healthy group of humans. Here, scientists will look out for any side effects, and also what doses could work best.

The second trial is on people who have the disease in question, and the final one is a much larger field trial.

This is where large amounts of money are needed to conduct large-scale trials and analyse data.

The Oxford team, said Dr Stanton, were giving trial volunteers either a placebo or the vaccine product and then waiting for these volunteers to encounter the coronavirus.

And that requires the virus to still be moving around the community.

“It sounds bizarre to say it, they are hoping there are some pockets where the transmission remains quite high,” said Dr Stanton.

Vaccines have wiped out smallpox – although Dr Stanton said it still existed in two laboratories in the United States and Russia – among others.

Smallpox vaccine

Smallpox has been wiped out by a vaccine
(Image: Getty Images)

Polio has also virtually been eradicated.

Dr Stanton said more recently a vaccine against the human papilloma virus was bringing cervical cancer cases in women down by 80-90%.

However, humans have not been able to crack the HIV virus, despite trying for decades.

“The reason why is that the (HIV) virus mutates so quickly,” explained Dr Stanton.

He added: “The flu vaccine is only about 50% successful, but that’s not as bad it sounds.

“Even 50% is enough to bring the ‘R’ (reproductive) value below one.”

Viruses only spread when the transmission rate is above one.

Asked whether vaccines could lose their efficacy, Dr Stanton replied: “That definitely can happen. The reason we have a new flu vaccine every year is that it does mutate to a huge extent.

“Around six months ahead of the (winter) flu season we collect samples from the community, and try to guess which ones will cause an outbreak that winter.

“We are getting pretty good at that.

“But there was one year when the virus mutated very slightly in between collecting the samples and the winter, so it was a bit less effective.”

Dr Stanton said a large amount of genetic sequencing had taken place of Covid-19, which is from a family of coronaviruses which also caused the deadly Sars and Mers outbreaks since 2002.

“I think the overall conclusion is that it (Covid-19) does not mutate that much,” he said.

“You expect viruses to mutate a little bit, but it’s much more stable than flu.

“The hope at the moment is that we’re not going to need to produce a different (coronavirus) vaccine each year.”

However, Dr Stanton also said that coronaviruses tended to produce a relatively short immunity in people of one to two years.

On the plus side, he said a recent study suggesting that some people were being re-infected with Covid-19 having had it previously no longer stacked up.

“It does not prove that you can’t get re-infected, but currently we don’t have any examples where people have been re-infected,” he said.

Asked if the 70-odd current vaccine trials were better than collaborating on, say, five leading contenders, Dr Stanton said: “To an extent you need that large number. You need that breadth of approach.

“And all vaccine studies become relatively large collaborations. Trials are really expensive.”

Dr Stanton said he felt the only trade-off in compressing the time it took to create an effective vaccine was money.

But Governments and others look set to manufacture large amounts of potential vaccines before they are proven fit for purpose, so that large supplies are available as soon as those that may prove effective and safe are ready to be used.

Dr Stanton said he didn’t think a shortened time frame would compromise safety.

“The consequences are so horrific – no-one is going to countenance skipping on safety processes,” he said.

But he added that the logistics of creating billions of doses were significant.

“There are the biological products, and the number of tubes you will need is massive,” he said.

Dr Stanton and colleagues at Cardiff University are looking at what types of antibodies protect against the coronavirus, and which ones might actually make it worse.

“We are really interested in the immune response,” he said.

Asked what the strategy would be if a successful vaccine wasn’t created, Dr Stanton replied: “There are still antivirals – a lot of companies are working on drugs that might inhibit the virus directly.

“The issues and timescales are the same as the issues and timescales with vaccines.

“Again, the main hope is that if we try enough things, one of them will work. If we don’t have a vaccine or drug, then the only solution is to manage the spread of the virus through behavioural changes – such as social distancing – as we are now.

“Testing and contact tracing are also a key part of allowing some level of control without complete lockdown.

“The big question there is how much of a hit we need to take to our behaviour and economy to keep the spread of the virus at a level the healthcare system can cope with.”

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