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COVID-19 vaccine and therapies research boosted by six new projects in £10.5 million rapid funding round

Published: 23 March 2020

The NIHR and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) have awarded £10.5 million of funding to six new research projects on developing and testing vaccines and therapies for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

One of the projects will investigate potential vaccines and could begin as early as June. Another of the funded projects will develop manufacturing processes to produce a vaccine at a million-dose scale. This will mean, if the clinical trials are a success, a vaccine would be available to high-risk groups as early as possible.

A third project will trial if existing drugs can be immediately re-purposed to help people hospitalised with COVID-19, and another project will collect data on COVID-19 patients to improve our knowledge of the disease and best treatment strategies.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “In the midst of a global health emergency the UK is using all its extensive research expertise to quickly develop new vaccines to target this international threat.

“This investment will speed up globally recognised vaccine development capabilities and help us find a new defence against this disease.”

The investment by UKRI and NIHR, part of the first round of a £20 million rapid funding call for COVID-19 research, supports the government’s four phase approach to contain, delay, mitigate, and research the coronavirus and disease it causes. It builds on the UK’s world class expertise and capability in global health and infectious disease that has already shaped our understanding of the outbreak and is informing measures to tackle it.

The projects will run over a maximum 18-month period, ensuring timely insights into the current epidemic.

Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer and NIHR lead, said: “The world faces an unprecedented challenge in our efforts to tackle the spread of COVID-19. It is vital we harness our research capabilities to the fullest extent to limit the outbreak and protect life.

“Alongside the world-leading research overseen by the NIHR, these new six projects will allow us to boost our existing knowledge and test new and innovative ways to understand and treat the disease.”


1) Understanding behaviour and spread of COVID-19 in the UK

Dr Kenneth Baillie, University of Edinburgh; Professor Peter Openshaw, Imperial College London; and Professor Calum Semple, University of Liverpool - £4.9m

The team will collect samples and data from COVID-19 patients in the UK to answer many urgent questions about the virus in real time, such as:

  • who in the population is at higher risk of severe illness
  • what is the best way to diagnose the disease
  • what is happening in their immune systems to help or harm patients
  • how drugs behave in people with the infection
  • how long people are infectious for and from which bodily fluids
  • whether people are infected with other viruses (e.g. flu) at the same time.

The study will recruit at least 1,300 UK patients over the next year and aim to start communicating their initial results in months.

The team’s capacity builds on planning over the past 8 years as part of the International Severe Acute Respiratory Infection Consortium, and it includes co-investigators from six UK universities and Public Health England.

2) Preclinical and clinical testing of a new vaccine for COVID-19

Professor Sarah Gilbert, University of Oxford - £2.2m

The team will undertake preclinical and clinical testing of a new vaccine for COVID-19, which they have been developing since the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus was released.

The vaccine is made from a harmless virus, an adenovirus that has been altered to produce the surface spike protein of COVID-19. The vaccine acts by priming the immune system to recognise and attack the coronavirus. The vaccine uses the same technique as a vaccine the team previously developed for the closely related MERS coronavirus, which showed promise in animal and early-stage human testing.

The new funding will support preclinical testing of the new vaccine, vaccine manufacturing and then clinical trials in people. The first stage of clinical trials will be in adults aged 18-50, later expanding to adults over 50 years and school age children. If the vaccine is shown to be safe and effective in these earlier trials, vaccine manufacturing will be scaled up for larger studies.

3) Re-purposing existing and new drugs for COVID-19 patients

Professor Peter Horby, University of Oxford - £2.1m

The Randomised Evaluation of COVID Therapy (RECOVERY) trial will test if existing or new drugs can help patients hospitalised with confirmed COVID-19.

The first two therapies to be tested will be iopinavir-ritonavir (an HIV drug) and low-dose corticosteroids, which will be evaluated to see if they are safe and effective when added to the usual standard of care.

The trial will have an ‘adaptive’ design, meaning it can test new therapies as they become available. The team’s aim is to have data available to inform patient treatment within three months.

4) Developing a new antibody therapy for coronavirus

Professor Xiao-Ning Xu, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Imperial College London - £0.6m

The researchers leading the nCoV study will develop antibodies that target the novel coronavirus, with the aim of developing a new therapy for COVID-19.

Antibodies are molecules produced by the body’s immune system that can specifically recognise and bind to structures, such as those on the surface of a virus, to stop the virus from entering cells and instruct the immune system to destroy it.

The team has already identified some antibodies that might bind to proteins from the COVID-19 coronavirus (CoV-bnMABs). In collaboration with China, the researchers will use these in this project to develop a potential antibody therapy, with the aim of getting the therapy to the stage where it is ready to enter clinical trials to determine if it can treat a range of coronavirus infections.

5) Developing processes to manufacture vaccines at scale

Dr Sandy Douglas, University of Oxford – £0.4m

The team is aiming to develop manufacturing processes for producing adenovirus vaccines at a million-dose scale, so that - if clinical trials are successful - a vaccine could be made available to high-risk groups as quickly as possible. They are working with Professor Sarah Gilbert’s team, who are developing promising novel coronavirus vaccines by modifying harmless adenoviruses.

6) Testing existing drugs on airway cells

Professor Ultan Power and Professor Ken Mills, Queen’s University Belfast – £0.3m

The researchers will test a library of approximately 1,000 drugs already approved for use in humans on cells in the laboratory to determine if any can reduce the toxic effects of novel coronavirus infection. The drugs will be tested on airway epithelial cells grown in the lab and infected with novel coronavirus to determine if the drugs can reduce virus infection or replication and virus-induced inflammatory responses.

This approach could identify promising drugs for further testing and clinical trials in 12 months.

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