23rd April 2020. A medical milestone to be remembered for generations to come. The quickest vaccine ever to be trialled.

The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly affected every one of us in many different ways; a few have lost their loved one, others fear of losing their loved ones, and some have even grasped the opportunity for a well-deserved break, whether that be devoting more time towards hobbies, feasting on a succulent barbeque or simply sunbathing! Regardless, a common emotion that we have all expressed during this outbreak is surprise, and just as we began to tend towards the idea that the worst was yet to come, our minds have been entertained once more! Only two days ago, the first clinical vaccine trials for COVID-19 took place in Europe, and better still, at Oxford University. Two volunteers, Elisa Granato, a microbiologist, and Edward O’Neill, a Cancer researcher, were the first of more than 800 adults aged 18-55 recruited for study. It is believed that half will receive the COVID-19 vaccine, whilst the other half will be given a control vaccine for Meningitis.

So, how, and more importantly, does the vaccine work?

Scientists at the Oxford Vaccination group have taken the genes for the spike protein on the surface of coronavirus and inserted them into a harmless virus, forming the vaccine. After injected, the vaccine enters cells, which subsequently begin to produce the coronavirus spike protein. This triggers the immune system to produce antibodies and T-Lymphocytes to combat and destroy the foreign virus, whilst having the ability to recognise and destroy the virus in the future, hence preventing infection. The Oxford team are hoping for 1 million doses by September, in addition to a huge scale-up in manufacturing after that. However, it is too early to celebrate without the knowledge of whether the vaccine actually works, and Professor Andrew Pollard, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group mentioned that we wouldn’t be able to tell whether the vaccine works within the next few months unless we catch the current “epidemic wave.”

There is, unfortunately, more concerns to take into account than just the uncertainty of the vaccine’s effectiveness. Firstly, lots of volunteers have to be exposed to coronavirus for the test results to be as valid and accurate as possible, and there is also the theoretical risk of the vaccine making the coronavirus infection worse, although scientists believe this is highly unlikely. Furthermore, the fact that the vaccine prompts a strong antibody response does not necessarily equate to protection, which could be a concern to some volunteers and users going forward. Ultimately, there is the overarching debate that we must consider as well: which countries and which groups of people get the vaccine first!

Despite these concerns, there are also enough positives to keep us motivated and hopeful. The Oxford Vaccination group have a strong record going back 30 years, having previously created another successful prototype against another form of coronavirus, which has done well in clinical trials, as well as vaccines against the plague and malaria. In addition, the scientists have promised to monitor the volunteers closely and carefully, and plans are being drawn up to conduct trials in Kenya, where the virus is on the rise, if inadequate results are collected here.

A new vaccine could be the saviour to all this struggle, it could be the answer to all our worries, fear and misery. But time and patience is required for the best results, so I urge you all to have faith in the scientists working tirelessly to cure the virus, because, as we all well and truly know, hard work always pays off!

By Aaron Sanjeevan, Saint Olave's Grammar School