Words by Grace Raines

COVID-19 trial vaccines have produced promising efficiency rates of 90% and above this month, though mass vaccination is not expected until mid-2021, with society’s most vulnerable to receive vaccinations first.

The most prominent vaccines in development are being created by companies Pfizer-BioNTech (combined Phases 2 and 3), Moderna (Phase 3),  Oxford Uni-AstraZeneca, (combined Phases 2 and 3),  and Gamaleya (Phase 3, given early approval for use in Russia).

To comply with global health committees who ensure new medications are safe for widespread use, new vaccines must pass through the following stages: Preclinical Testing; Phase 1 – Safety Trials; Phase 2 – Expanded Trials; Phase 3 – Efficacy Trials; and finally Approval. 

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have applied for emergency use authorisation in the US following encouraging results from their Phase 3 (or combined Phases 2/3) trials, with efficiency rates of 90% and 95% respectively. The respective health board decisions based on these results are expected to be announced within several weeks.

Whilst companies Oxford Uni-AstraZeneca and Gamaleya are utilising the conventional model of ‘viral vector’ vaccination, examples including the Hepatitis B vaccine, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s trials are instead employing a new inoculation technique, using fragments of the virus’ RNA to stimulate an immune response, and subsequent pathogen antigen production, in those exposed to the experimental drug.

So far, the UK has ordered approximately 145 million doses of COVID-19 vaccinations from the four aforementioned companies, 100 million of which coming from Oxford Uni-AstraZeneca, where trials have shown encouraging numbers of older individuals experiencing higher than expected immune responses to the treatment with very few side effects. As the older generation typically have weaker immune systems than younger individuals, and therefore react less positively to vaccinations, these findings bring extremely good news to some of the most vulnerable in society. 

Furthermore, Oxford Uni-AstraZeneca have found that more than 99% of participants of all ages experienced antibody production in response to their trial vaccine, with T-cell responses peaking two weeks after an initial dose. Further data needs to be collected and processed to tell whether the vaccine is truly effective at preventing individuals from catching COVID-19, and Professor Andrew Pollard of the University of Oxford hopes this data will be released “before Christmas”. 

Whilst numerous COVID-19 vaccine trials are taking place, the World Economic Forum stated that the development of new vaccines generally takes approximately ten years from start to finish, passing through five key stages before they can be deemed safe and used within the general population.

This process of progressing through stages however has been accelerated to quicken development, with many companies combining phases to expedite the search for an effective, yet safe, vaccine, with Dr. Jerome Kim, the International Vaccine Institute’s Director General, stating that the speed which multiple trial medications have been developed is “unprecedented”.

Simultaneous to the race for a COVID vaccine, the British government has  begun to roll out a new flu jab initiative from 1 December, offering free vaccinations to an extended group of society’s most vulnerable individuals. Matt Hancock, Secretary for State Health and Social Care, says the scheme is functioning to tackle the “twin threats” of flu and COVID-19 this winter, as co-infection can occur if individuals catch COVID-19 and are also not immunised against the flu. The free flu jabs will be available at local GP surgeries and pharmacies and are expected to be offered to more than 30 million people.

The new guidelines below outline those who are eligible for free flu jabs through this scheme:

• Adults aged 50 or over 

• Pregnant women

• Those with certain pre-existing conditions

• NHS and social care workers

• All children up to year 7

• Household contacts of those clinically extremely vulnerable

As the flu vaccine has been heavily pushed by government officials and ministers throughout the year to take part of the strain off of the NHS and its services, vaccine uptake rates have skyrocketed compared to 2019’s rates, as most vulnerable groups eligible for free vaccines before this new scheme have seen an increased jab uptake, as can be seen for example with ‘72.9% of those aged 65 and over’ having been inoculated according to Public Health England, a large increase in turnout compared to the previous year.

For more information on the developing vaccine situation, visit nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/ for updates from the NHS, or alternatively visit the New York Times webpage, consistently updated with vaccine information as it’s released, found at nytimes.com/interactive/2020/science/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker.html.

Picture Credit: Queensland Government

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