(Originally published on May 3, 2020)
After waking early in his student halls last Monday, Michael Bryan’s morning routine was much like any other: jog, shower, chinos. But then he boarded an empty train from London to Oxford to take a front-row seat in what could prove to be the medical project of the century – and become one of the first people on the planet to be injected with what might be the vaccine that stops this pandemic in its tracks.
Eighteen-year-old Bryan is one of 1,100 healthy volunteers, aged between 18 and 55, taking part in a ground-breaking clinical trial at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, the laboratory now leading the global race to produce a safe vaccine for Covid-19.
Scientists usually have to prove the safety of new vaccines in a preliminary stage of human trials involving small numbers, to show that the vaccine has no adverse side effects. Most other trials around the world – including the 45-person experiment in Seattle, which attracted much hype last month – are still at this stage.
But the Oxford team has already proved the safety of very similar vaccine candidates, which use the same technology, in 22 human trials since 2007, including one that showed promising results in combating the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (Mers), another human coronavirus. It is this that has allowed them to leap ahead to the second stage: proving the thing works in large numbers of people.
They hope to start ramping up to more than 6,000 participants by the end of May, and the first few million doses “could well be” ready as early as September, according to Prof Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute and one of five researchers leading the trial, whose facility was heavily involved in the effort to create an Ebola vaccine in 2014.
He is 80 per cent confident that this vaccine – officially called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 – will work, and they have already secured a manufacturing and distribution deal with pharmaceutical giant, AstraZeneca, that will give the NHS priority access, if positive results are returned.
“They’re ready to go, full speed ahead, if and when the vaccine works,” Hill told me over the phone on Thursday.
All very promising, but that doesn’t make it any less daunting to receive. Bryan was nauseous with nerves in the hours before his appointment, and couldn’t help imagining “movie sound effects” as he walked into the otherwise “unremarkable” building, named after Edward Jenner, the English doctor who popularised vaccination in the 19th century.
The closer he got, the more security guards in high-vis he saw. “It almost felt like I was walking into the Ministry of Defence,” he said.
First, Bryan was escorted through a glass tunnel to a room that looked like a “makeshift hospital ward”, where his blood pressure was tested. Then he was taken to another room, which looked like a GP’s office, where a “very kind” nurse asked if he was ready. “As ready as I’ll ever be,” he replied. After what felt like little more than a “sharp scratch” on his upper left arm, it was over. Almost a week later, he feels fine – the whole affair felt like “a bit of an anti-climax”, he has to admit.
Bryan, in his first year of a joint degree between the London School of Economics and Harvard, volunteered for the trial out of desperation to help his mother, Natasha, who had a bone-marrow transplant in 2003 and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, both of which mean she is in the high-risk group for Covid-19.
While most of his student friends have escaped to their parent’s houses for lockdown, Natasha’s condition means that she is home alone in Bournemouth (Bryan lost his father, Michael, a concert pianist, to Parkinson’s when he was eight) while he has had to stay put in his halls of residence – now something of “a ghost town”.
“I love my mum to pieces, and it would be heart-wrenching if anything ever happened to her,” he says. “If this means I could come closer to saving her, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
Half of the 1,100 participants in the trial are being given a genetically modified strain of Covid-19 in order to elicit an immune response, while the other half are given a placebo. Bryan has no idea which he received, but will be slightly disappointed if it was the latter. Each day, he records how he feels in an e-diary.
Researchers have reason to be optimistic. Last month, scientists in Montana gave the Oxford vaccine to six rhesus macaque monkeys, chosen because they are the closest animal, genetically, to humans. The monkeys were then exposed to heavy quantities of the virus – exposure that has sickened other monkeys in the same lab. A month later, all six are still perfectly healthy.
The only problem, says Prof Hill, will be if the numbers of Covid-19 cases in the UK drop too low for the trial to produce any firm conclusions – as is already happening to some trials in China – because the trial relies on volunteers being exposed to the virus in their day-to-day lives.
“We’re the only people in Britain who are hoping that the cases hang on for another few weeks,” he says. “We just need another few weeks of transmission, then we should get a result.”
On the phone, Bryan is almost giddy with enthusiasm, but has had moments of apprehension, too, stoked by “anti-vaxxer” conspiracy theorists.
The day before his jab, social media was abuzz with fake news claiming that Dr Elisa Granato, the first Oxford volunteer to receive her injection, had died – she was forced to record a video from her living room in which she reassured viewers that she was “very much alive” and “having a cup of tea”.
Oxford University has now stopped publishing the names and photographs of participants in case they are picked up by nefarious websites.
Bryan was awake until 3am reading the false reports. “I knew it was almost certainly fake and had heard from [Dr Granato] the day before... but I was still somewhat unnerved by it,” he admits.
“Pure academic curiosity” outweighed any fears: the chance to be “on the cutting-edge of something that really can make a difference”.
If things go well, he might even be able to see his mum again, too.
The Sunday Telegraph
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