Last night, the government announced stringent new measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.
From this weekend, people over 70 and those with serious health conditions will be told to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Everyone is being urged to work from home where possible and avoid unnecessary travel, social venues like pubs, clubs and restaurants and large gatherings.
If you – or anyone in your household – develops a new, persistent cough or a high temperature, you must all self-isolate for 14 days. If you live alone, the advice is to self-isolate for seven days from the first day of symptoms.
The announcement came in response to a landmark report by scientists at Imperial College, which predicts that hundreds of thousands of Brits could die without robust action to suppress the virus.
Among the report’s most striking findings is that if lives are to be saved, the measures will need to be in place until an effective vaccine against COVID19 is available.
So how long could that take? We’re going to look at the current state of the science in the race to find a vaccine for coronavirus.
Multiple ‘candidate’ vaccines and treatments
Dr Melanie Saville of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) told journalists last week that several “candidate” vaccines are being developed with funding from her organisation.
At the same event, Professor Hanneke Schuitemaker, Global Head of Viral Vaccine Discover at Janssen Vaccines, said scientists are testing a “library” of existing antivirals to see if they are effective against COVID19.
If they are successful, this could be a double win for scientists: if an existing drug works, there will be at least one manufacturer that already knows how to produce it, which should make it easier to ramp up production to the hundreds of millions of doses required.
Seattle: human trials already underway
One of the candidate vaccines has already reached a key milestone: testing in humans.
Scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle began the first human trials on a possible vaccine on Monday. The 45 volunteers will receive two doses, one month apart.
But there’s no guarantee this particular vaccine will be effective against coronavirus – or that it won’t carry significant side effects.
And even if it does prove viable, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr Anthony Fauci, warns that it won’t be ready for public rollout for at least 12 to 18 months.
London: human trials to begin this summer
A separate project led by Professor Robin Shattock of Imperial College London is close to the human testing phase.
Professor Shattock told FactCheck that he and his team are developing a “self-amplifying RNA vaccine” against the virus. He explains how it works: “when injected into muscle it instructs the muscle cells to make this viral protein stimulating the immune system to make antibodies against the virus.”
The Imperial team are currently in the “advanced animal testing” phase of development, and Professor Shattock says they “hope to be starting human trials by the summer.”
“If all goes well it could be available sometime next year.”
Australia: possible ‘cure’ to be trialled nationwide next month
While the majority of people who contract COVID19, including those who end up in hospital, will recover, doctors have yet to work out a fully effective treatment to cure all of the most severe cases.
Professor David Paterson of the University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research in Australia announced just days ago that two existing medications may provide the missing piece of the puzzle.
One is an anti-malaria drug called chloroquine. A number of papers proposing the use of chloroquine to treat COVID19 have already been published in China, but the full trial data has not been made available for peer review.
The other drug in the Queensland trial is an HIV drug called Lopinavir/Ritonavir, which has been superseded by other medications to treat the immune disease.
Professor Paterson told website news.com.au that “It’s a potentially effective treatment,” against COVID19 and “patients would end up with no viable coronavirus in their system at all after the end of therapy.”
“What we want to do at the moment is a large clinical trial across Australia, looking at 50 hospitals, and what we’re going to compare is one drug, versus another drug, versus the combination of the two drugs,” he added. His team hope to get the drugs in wider trials by the end of March.