Oxford-AstraZeneca Coronavirus Vaccine Data is 'Encouraging'

An experimental coronavirus vaccine called AZD1222 triggered an immune response against COVID-19 in study participants, and it has only minor side effects.

An experimental coronavirus vaccine called AZD1222 triggered an immune response against COVID-19 in study participants, and it has only minor side effects, according to new data published in the medical journal, the Lancet.

Also featured in NPR's Shots, the vaccine is being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. It uses a different, harmless virus to deliver biological instructions for how to fight off the coronavirus.

According to a Phase I and II study of more than 1,000 patients, the vaccine triggered two immune responses: an increase in antibodies and a T-cell response.

"So far, everything we've seen has been encouraging," says Naor Bar-Zeev, deputy director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University, on NPR. He said there hasn't been any severe reactions.

Reported reactions were more common among patients who received the coronavirus vaccine than those who received the control, which was a meningitis vaccine. Reported reactions included muscle aches, chills and feeling feverish. Medication such as acetaminophen relieved those symptoms, according to the report.

Study enrollment took place between April 23 and May 21 of this year, and included 1,077 participants from 18 to 55-years-old who had not previously tested positive for COVID-19. Although the gender breakdown was fairly even, study participants were mostly white. The study was single-blind, meaning patients did not know whether they received the coronavirus vaccine or the control.

Professor and one of the study authors, Adrian Hill, says the two-pronged immune response is ideal. The antibodies prevent healthy cells from becoming infected, and the T-cells work to kill cells that have already become infected.

"Having both of these after vaccination — sometimes after a single dose, but much better after a second dose — is pretty encouraging," says Hill, who directs the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. "Nobody can say for certain what you need to get protection in this disease because it's never been done before," he says.

The magnitude of the immune response was what they hoped for and was at the level "that seems to work in fundamental studies in animals and certainly right up there compared to using this sort of vaccine technology before," he adds.

The researchers say it's encouraging they didn't find any serious adverse reactions, but they caution more research is needed to understand rarer reactions to the vaccine, which may not appear in 1,000 people, but could turn up once the vaccine is given to millions of Americans, Bar-Zeev says.

Hill adds much can change, which is why he and his colleagues are rooting for other vaccines candidates to have positive study results as well.

This vaccine is being developed by the University of Oxford in partnership with AstraZeneca. The Trump administration awarded the duo up to $1.2 billion from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority as part of Operation Warp Speed, the administration's push to have a widely available coronavirus vaccine by January 2021.

There are 24 COVID-19 vaccine candidates currently in clinical trial, according to the World Health Organization. Only two—the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate and another candidate by Sinovac Biotech—have begun Phase III trials so far.

Phase III trials are the largest and usually last clinical trials before approval. They often include evaluating whether the treatment works better or worse than the standard of care, and closely monitoring adverse events.

Hill says 10,000 patients have already been administered a vaccine as part of a follow-up study in the United Kingdom, and an even larger follow-up study is set to begin in the United States in the next few weeks with 30,000 patients. Overall, there are four or five trial sites, totaling 50,000 participants.

"As soon as together those trials show a convincing end point, then we would be in a position to apply for some sort of emergency use, regulatory approval that would allow the vaccine to be used," he says. "Because it's urgently needed in large numbers of people."

An additional 142 vaccine candidates are in preclinical studies.