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COVID vaccine role for Christchurch Dean

Tuesday 23 June 2020 2:36pm

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Christchurch Dean Professor David Murdoch will help advise a group from Oxford University who are developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

University of Otago, Christchurch Dean and infectious disease expert Professor David Murdoch has been asked to formally support the Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine development effort.

Professor Murdoch is one of only three independent international experts invited to advise the British group whose scientists are seen as one of just a handful globally most likely to succeed in developing a vaccine against the virus.

Professor Murdoch says his role as a member of the trial steering committee is to provide expert oversight on all aspects of vaccine development, including monitoring trials in small then larger groups of people to test its effectiveness.

He says the Oxford vaccine is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus, which has been modified so it cannot grow in humans. The spike glycoprotein from the virus that causes COVID-19 is added in the hopes it will make the body recognise and develop an immune response to the spike protein and stop the SARS-CoV-2 virus entering human cells and therefore prevent infection.

There are six stages a vaccine must go through during development, Professor Murdoch says. These are exploratory, pre-clinical, clinical development, regulatory review and approval, manufacturing and, finally, quality control.

The Oxford vaccine is currently at the third stage, clinical development. It is being trialled in people in the United Kingdom and trials will soon extend to Brazil and Africa. These are places to test new vaccines as COVID-19 is still widespread in the community. In contrast, New Zealand is not an option for large-scale trials of COVID-19 vaccines because of our relative success in containing the virus, Professor Murdoch says.

A total of 10,000 volunteers from the United Kingdom are being sought for the trial, which should be large enough to determine if the vaccine works, he says. The team have already trialled it in 1,000 healthy human adults. The larger trial will assess how well the vaccine works to prevent people from becoming infected and unwell from COVID-19.

Professor Murdoch says if the vaccine successfully passes the clinical phase it is still likely to be many months before it is manufactured and distributed globally.

He was recently appointed to the New Zealand Government’s vaccine strategy advisory group. This group will advise on plans to source, manufacture and distribute the vaccine.

Story by Kim Thomas (Senior Communications Adviser, University of Otago, Christchurch)