Oxford University’s COVID-19 vaccine trial has only a 50% chance of success as the virus is disappearing so quickly in Britain, warns a professor co-leading the project. 

Professor Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, revealed in an interview with the Telegraph that an upcoming trial involving 10,000 volunteers may return “no result” owing to low transmission of the coronavirus in the community. 

This comes days after pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca announced it would be ready to mass-produce the potential new vaccine from September. Meanwhile, the Government reached a deal with the company to pay for up to 100 million doses, with Business Secretary Alok Sharma adding in a press conference that 30 million of these could be available by September, should trials prove successful. 

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But as COVID-19 cases continue to fall in the UK, Professor Hill told the Telegraph that the research team are facing a potentially major setback, casting doubt on the feasibility of the September deadline: “It is a race, yes. But it’s not a race against the other guys. It’s a race against the virus disappearing, and against time.

“We said earlier in the year that there was an 80% chance of developing an effective vaccine by September. But at the moment, there’s a 50% chance that we get no result at all.

“We’re in the bizarre position of wanting Covid to stay, at least for a little while. But cases are declining.”

According to the WHO, Oxford University is one of the 76 global contenders racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. The experimental vaccine, known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 (or ZD1222), is one of only eight across the world that has started to test on humans, with researchers conducting an initial trial of more than 1000 volunteers in April when the virus was at its peak. The results of this first trial will be released in early June. 

Of the 10,000 people recruited for the second trial, however, Professor Hill expects fewer than 50 people to become infected with the virus due to dwindling community transmission. If fewer than 20 people test positive, he warns the results may be of limited or no use.

“The first trial is going fine. We’re still in business, I can tell you that.

“But we’re not going to do what others have done – say we’ve got something good, but we’re not showing you yet. That’s just bonkers. You either disclose your results or you don’t.”

In the event that the next stage of trials proves successful, the U.K. “will be first to get access” to the vaccine, Sharma pledged at a government briefing.

Professor Hill stressed, however, that the University had secured “hardwired” assurances that wealthier countries would not have unfair priority access to the vaccine. This follows a US announcement that it would provide $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca to fund the vaccine’s development. 

“The reputational damage to the university would be enormous if we provided the vaccine only for the UK and US, and not for the rest of those countries of the world where it’s very likely that the pandemic will still be raging,” Hill said.

The team is one of many planning to conduct further trials in COVID-19 hotspots in other countries. They have already arranged trials in the US, and are currently in talks with other countries where virus transmission rates remain high. 

Hill was keen to warn that despite vast international investment in the project, funding “doesn’t guarantee the result,” adding that “it could be nothing or could be great or somewhere in between.”

Various senior ministers in the British Government have also warned that there is “no guarantee” that a vaccine will be found, and that funding research into other drug treatments is equally vital to help combat the impact of the pandemic on the UK population.

Image by Phoebe White