COVID-19 vaccine & therapy research boosted by six new projects in rapid response


24-03-2020
Coronavirus: Image credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

Six new studies into the novel coronavirus have been funded by the UK government, including testing a vaccine, developing therapies and improving understanding of how to treat COVID-19.  

This first round of projects receives £10.5 million as part of the £20 million rapid research response funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and by the Department of Health and Social Care through the National Institute for Health Research.   

A promising new vaccine that has been developed by UK researchers will be supported through pre-clinical and clinical trials to determine if it is safe and effective. The researchers will also be funded to develop manufacturing processes for producing the vaccines at a million-dose scale, so that - if clinical trials are successful - a vaccine could be made available to high-risk groups as quickly as possible.  

Patients hospitalised in the NHS with COVID-19 are taking part in a new clinical trial to test therapies, starting with lopinavir-ritonavir and low-dose corticosteroids. 

Other projects will develop new therapeutic antibodies and screen hundreds of existing drugs in the lab to find ones that show promise against the novel coronavirus. 

Another project will collect data on COVID-19 NHS patients to answer many urgent questions – such as what treatments work best? how is the disease transmitted? And, why are some people at higher risk of severe illness? – to inform efforts to control the outbreak and improve treatment for patients in real time. 

The research supports the UK government’s efforts to save lives, protect the vulnerable and support the NHS so it can help those who need it the most. It builds on the UK’s world class expertise and capability in global heath and infectious disease that has already shaped our understanding of the pandemic and is informing measures to tackle it. 

Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said: “The world faces an unprecedented challenge in our efforts to tackle the spread of COVID-19 and it is vital we harness our research capabilities to the fullest extent to limit the outbreak and protect life.  

“Alongside the world-leading research overseen by the NIHR, these new six projects will allow us to boost our existing knowledge and test new and innovative ways to understand and treat the disease.” 

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport said: “The UK’s world-leading researchers have already made vital contributions to the understanding and responses to this pandemic. UK Research and Innovation, in partnership with NIHR and DHSC, has moved quickly to fund this new, additional research to rapidly test re-purposed therapies in patients, understand the disease and its variation in susceptibility, and boost the development of new vaccines and therapies. 

“These efforts will be critical to finding better ways to treat and manage COVID-19, which we hope will help to save lives, protect the more vulnerable, and support the development, trials and in due course the scale up of production of much-needed vaccines. 

“We will continue to support new proposals for research and innovation that will help the UK and others to tackle the pandemic caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2.” 

Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said: “The UK is home to incredible scientists and researchers who are all at the forefront of their field, and all united in their aim; protecting people’s lives from coronavirus. 

“The announcement made today reflects the vital work being undertaken by our scientists to help develop vaccines and treatments. This research could herald important breakthroughs that will put the NHS in a stronger position to respond to the outbreak.” 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “In the midst of a global health emergency the UK is using all its extensive research expertise to quickly develop new vaccines to target this international threat.  

“This investment will speed up globally-recognised vaccine development capabilities and help us find a new defence against this disease.” 

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: “Whether testing new drugs or examining how to repurpose existing ones, UK scientists and researchers have been working tirelessly on the development of treatments for coronavirus. 

“The projects we are funding today will be vital in our work to support our valuable NHS and protect people’s lives.” 

The projects will run over a maximum 18-month period, ensuring timely insights into the current epidemic. 

This research funding has been coordinated with other funders and the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure there is not duplication of effort and expertise is applied strategically. 

In January, the Medical Research Council, part of UKRI, additionally funded £0.5 million each to two centres: the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, which is contributing world-leading outbreak modelling and transmission dynamics and liaising with WHO; and the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, which has investigated the genetics and origins of the virus. 

Projects: 

Dr Kenneth Baillie University of Edinburgh, Prof. Peter Openshaw Imperial College London, & Prof. Calum Semple University of Liverpool - £4.9 million 

They will collect samples and data from COVID-19 patients in the UK to answer many urgent questions about the virus and provide real-time information, which could help to control the outbreak and improve treatment for patients. Their questions include: who in the population is at higher risk of severe illness; what is the best way to diagnose the disease; what is happening in their immune systems to help or harm them; closely monitoring the effects of drugs used in patients with COVID-19; how long are people infectious for and from which bodily fluids; and are people infected with other viruses (e.g. flu) at the same time? They will recruit at least the first 1,300 UK patients who agree to take part over the next year and aim to start communicating their initial results in months. The team’s capacity builds on planning over the past 8 years as part of the International Severe Acute Respiratory Infection Consortium, and it includes co-investigators from six UK universities and Public Health England. 

Professor Sarah Gilbert, University of Oxford - £2.2 million 

The team are already developing a new vaccine against the COVID-19, as they initiated vaccine development as soon as the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus was released. This funding will support preclinical testing of the new vaccine, vaccine manufacturing and then clinical trials in people. The first stage of human testing will be in adults aged 18-50, later expanding the trial to adults over 50 years and school age children. The vaccine is made from a harmless virus, an adenovirus, which has been altered to produce the surface spike protein of the coronavirus after vaccination, to prime the immune system to recognise and attack the coronavirus. If the vaccine is shown to be safe and effective in these earlier trials, vaccine manufacturing will be scaled up for larger studies. The vaccine utilises the same technique as a vaccine the team previously developed for the closely related MERS coronavirus, which showed promise in animal and early-stage human testing. This earlier research was funded by the UK Vaccines Network (a DHSC and UKRI initiative) in 2018. 

Professor Peter Horby, University of Oxford - £2.1 million 

A clinical trial started last week in the UK to test if existing or new drugs can help patients hospitalised with confirmed COVID-19. The drugs will be tested to see if they are safe and effective when added to the usual standard of care. The trial will have an ‘adaptive’ design, meaning it can test new therapies as they become available. The first two therapies to be tested will be: lopinavir-ritonavir and low-dose corticosteroids. The trial is called Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy (RECOVERY). The research team’s ambitious aim is to have data available to inform patient treatment within three months. 

Professor Xiao-Ning Xu, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Imperial College London - £0.6 million 

The researchers will develop antibodies that target the novel coronavirus with the aim of developing a new therapy for COVID-19. Antibodies are molecules produced by the body’s immune system that can specifically recognise and bind to structures, such as those on the surface of a virus, to block the virus entry and instruct the immune system to destroy it. They have already identified some antibodies that might bind to proteins from the COVID-19 coronavirus. In collaboration with China, the scientists will use these in this project to develop a potential antibody therapy, with the aim of getting the therapy to the stage where it is ready to enter clinical trials to determine if it can treat a range of coronavirus infections including the COVID-19 coronavirus.  

Dr Sandy Douglas, University of Oxford – £0.4 million 

The team are aiming to develop manufacturing processes for producing adenovirus vaccines at a million-dose scale, so that - if clinical trials are successful - a vaccine could be made available to high-risk groups as quickly as possible. They are working with Professor Sarah Gilbert’s team, who are developing promising novel coronavirus vaccines by modifying harmless adenoviruses. 

Professor Ultan Power and Professor Ken Mills, Queens University Belfast – £0.3 million 

They will test a library of approximately 1,000 drugs on cells in the laboratory to determine if any can reduce the toxic effects of novel coronavirus infection. The drugs are already approved for use in humans. They will be tested on airway epithelial cells grown in the lab and infected with novel coronavirus to determine if the drugs can reduce virus infection or replication and virus-induced inflammatory responses. This could identify promising drugs for further testing and clinical trials in 12 months. 

See also: UK launches whole genome sequence alliance to map spread of coronavirus

Image credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

To read more information, click here.

The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health.

MRC [Medical Research Council]