I can inform the House that we are establishing human challenge trials for possible COVID-19 vaccines in the UK.
In human challenge studies, the vaccine is given to a small number of healthy adult volunteers, who are then exposed to the virus. Medics and scientists then closely monitor the effect to see exactly how the vaccine works and identify any side effects. These studies are conducted under strict health and safety conditions – the safety of all volunteers is paramount.
The first stage of this project will be delivered by a partnership between Imperial College London, the Royal Free London Hospital’s specialist and secure research unit in London and industry-leading clinical company hVIVO, which has pioneered viral human challenge models. The aim will be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause a person to develop COVID-19. This is known as a virus characterisation study and will be backed by £33.6m of government investment. If approved by regulators and the ethics committee, the studies would start in January with results expected by May 2021.
This will allow PHE to run crucial tests on blood samples taken from participants of the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials to monitor the effectiveness of the vaccines. These tests are essential in supporting the development and regulatory approval of vaccine candidates. Scientists at PHE’s laboratory in Porton Down have been working on developing this testing capability since the start of the pandemic. The investment in these world-leading facilities and expertise will enable scientists to provide critical testing support for vaccine trials taking place in the UK. It will also ensure that that the UK has access to a centralised laboratory to test the samples. This will give us a greater understanding of how potential vaccines work and compare against one another.
The funding announced today for these ground-breaking studies marks an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines.