Jonathan Van Tam explains how vaccine development sped up in Covid crisis


England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has set out how the timetable for developing and approving a vaccine had been condensed from the usual several years due to the coronavirus crisis.

But despite the speedy approval process the Deputy CMO poured cold water on being back to normal by Easter.

He said vaccines won’t be a get out clause for the second wave.

“There’s no shortcut to the future,”: he told a journalist at the briefing.

Professor Van Tam also said he’d told his elderly mother to get ready to take the vaccine as soon as she is eligible.

Under the emergency approval process, the three phases of clinical trials are overlapped, instead of taking place sequentially.

So while the original process could take years, the process could now take just months.

He also set out how pharmaceutical firms had begun manufacturing before final approval had been granted – taking on the risk that their work may have to be scrapped.



The normal vaccine development timeline

Prof Van-Tam said: “Everyone knows that this is a public health emergency. We are in a much more difficult position.”

But he said that the three phases of clinical trials were no smaller and “the standards are no lower just because this is a public health emergency”.

Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, said: “The safety of the public will always come first.

“A Covid-19 vaccine will only be approved once it has met robust standards of effectiveness, safety and quality.”



The sped up vaccine timeline being used in Covid

Professor Van-Tam said the pharmaceutical firms were all aware of the need for their vaccines to be effective for older people, who are most vulnerable to Covid-19.

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He said: “It is a first immunological principle that sometimes vaccines do not work as well in the elderly as they do in younger adults.

“I know that all the companies are focused on making sure that they have adequate data and adequate readout on how the vaccines work in older people.”



Professor Van Tam led the briefing

The initial plan will be to roll out a vaccine to older members of society, care home workers and those most vulnerable to the disease will protect 99% of those at risk of death from Covid-19, Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation chairman Professor Wei Shen Lim said.

He added that priority groups “may change” but current thinking is they would start with care home residents and workers, then older individuals, going down age groups to the over-60s.

He said adults with underlying health condition would then be prioritised before the over-50s during phase one of the programme.

“If phase one is completed then we will have protected hopefully over 99% of those individuals who are at risk of dying from Covid-19,” he said.

Officials have not decided who should be vaccinated after phase one.

Professor Van-Tam said he had encouraged his 78-year-old mother to be ready to take a coronavirus vaccine as soon as possible.

Asked whether high-profile Government figures such as himself or the Prime Minister should take a vaccine first to prove to the public it was safe, Prof Van-Tam told a Downing Street briefing he would be “at the front of the queue” if he was allowed.

He said he was a 56-year-old with one medium-to-high risk condition, so there were people with greater priority.

“If I could, rightly and morally, be at the very front of the queue, then I would do so, because I absolutely trust the judgment of the MHRA on safety and efficacy,” he said.

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“But that clearly isn’t right, we have to target the most highest risk individuals in society and that is how it should be in terms of our system.

“If I could be at the front of the queue, then I would be.

“I think the ‘mum test’ is very important here. My mum is 78, she will be 79 shortly, and I have already said to her, ‘mum, make sure when you are called you are ready, be ready to take this up, this is really important for you because of your age’.”

Professor Van Tam said he believed a vaccine should be distributed according to clinical priority rather than allowing the wealthy to be able to pay privately to jump the queue.

“One of the things I like about the NHS is that it’s there for everybody, irrespective of their level of wealth or who they are in society. That’s a really important principle to me, personally.”

Prof Van-Tam said he was not aware of any plans to contemplate an arrangement where people could pay privately to get a vaccine first, although “that is a ministerial decision” rather than one for clinicians.

Yesterday, the Health Secretary said people in the UK are likely to be among the first in the world to receive a coronavirus jab.

The UK’s medicines regulator could approve the Pfizer or Oxford jabs within days of a licence application being submitted due to rolling analysis of the data, according to Matt Hancock.

He told MPs in the Commons the focus was on delivering the vaccines from Oxford and Pfizer if they pass safety tests and are approved by regulators, with a further vaccine possibly coming next summer.

It came as a top scientist said the UK needs “a toolbox as full as possible” of different vaccines and several may come on stream shortly.



Mr Hancock said the vaccine roll out could begin in December

Professor Robin Shattock, from Imperial College London, said vaccines are“exceptionally safe” and the UK needs a range because some may work better in different age groups or among those with underlying health conditions.

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He said he is “really hopeful” Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s vaccine will report its results soon, with others following shortly afterwards.

He told BBC Breakfast: “The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, we anticipate that there may be a result anytime soon, before Christmas.

“And there are a number of other vaccines that may come through shortly after that.

“All these vaccines will have different levels of immunity and may be useful for different populations, so we need as many vaccines as possible to be able to combat this pandemic, and make them globally available.”



A range of vaccines are being trialled

The Imperial College vaccine Prof Shattock is working on uses a similar technology to that of Pfizer and BioNTech, whose interim data on Monday showed their jab can prevent more than 90% of people from getting Covid-19.

Responding to Pfzer’s news, Prof Shattock said: “It’s still early but this the first evidence this is a vaccine-preventable disease and that is a big boon to everybody working on vaccines.”

Asked at which stage the Imperial vaccine is at, Prof Shattock said: “We’re using a similar technology, it’s RNA-based.

“Ours is slightly different because it has an amplification process that means we can use a lower dose.

“We’re selecting the final dose next month and then we’re ready to go into large efficacy testing in the UK, with the potential of going for approval (from regulators) in the summer.”

Asked how scientists know whether vaccines are safe for people with underlying health conditions, Prof Shattock said their safety in these groups will be closely monitored.

“That’s another reason why we need a range of vaccines, because some vaccines may work better in people with different underlying conditions,” he said.

“It’s important to have a toolbox as full as possible, so we can make sure there is something that works for everybody.”





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