The big challenge with South Africa’s coronavirus vaccine trial

Professor Shabir Madhi, trial head for the Oxford vaccine study in South Africa, says that his team is facing challenges as the country faces a surge in coronavirus cases.

Madhi and his team are currently testing the Oxford vaccine in the middle of a Covid-19 storm in South Africa, where infections are climbing at a rapid rate.

Speaking in an interview with CNN, the professor said that his team might end up failing in the trial – not because the vaccine fails at protecting people, but rather because the ‘force of exposure’ is so tremendous in the country that it presents other challenges.

This has been highlighted by the fact that it was proving difficult to find enough Covid-19-negative volunteers to make up the 2,000 participants required for the study.

“This is really going to test the mettle of this vaccine. We could experience multiple waves of an outbreak for the next two to three years. So the thing that is probably going to break the back of this pandemic at the end of the day – not just in South Africa, but globally – is a vaccine.”

Madhi added that the South African vaccine results will have a significant impact globally, but was ‘high risk, high reward’

“If this vaccine works under these circumstances in South Africa, then this vaccine will work anywhere.”

South Africa is expected to publish its vaccine trial results in November.

Positive results

The University of Oxford says that a coronavirus vaccine it is developing has shown promising results in early human testing, a sign of progress in the high-stakes pursuit of a shot to defeat the pathogen.

The vaccine increased levels of both protective neutralising antibodies and immune T-cells that target the virus, according to the study organisers. The results were published Monday in The Lancet medical journal.

A positive outcome had been widely expected after reports last week lifted the stock, with the vaccine already in more advanced trials.

“We are seeing very good immune responses, not just on neutralising antibodies but of T-cells as well,” said Adrian Hill, head of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, in an interview. “We’re stimulating both arms of the immune system.”

Across the world, about 160 coronavirus vaccines are in various stages of development, according to the World Health Organisation.

The Oxford shot is close to the front of the pack and has already begun final-stage tests. AstraZeneca has said it may begin delivering doses to the UK as early as September.

“We want other companies to have vaccines that work as well because the world will get more vaccine sooner,” Hill said. “We just feel there is an advantage of having both arms of the immune system stimulated well.”


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The big challenge with South Africa’s coronavirus vaccine trial