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AstraZeneca-Oxford trial COVID vaccine moves to crucial phase with $1 billion in U.S. backing

AstraZeneca CEO on vaccine progress
AstraZeneca CEO on progress towards a coronavirus vaccine 05:09

London — In the race for a vaccine against the deadly coronavirus, U.S. taxpayers have placed a $1 billion bet on Oxford University. The investment announced this week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services comes just as Oxford's vaccine team enters a crucial phase in its human trials: expanding testing with the enrollment of more than 10,000 people, including children age 5 to 12, and people over 70.

"The main reason why that is important is that the immune responses [in the older group] tend to be less strong, particularly in the over 70's, so we want to study that in great detail in that age group," explained Oxford team leader Professor Andrew Pollard, who added that the study was also intended to show "any differences in vaccine safety in that group."

U.K.-based pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, which has partnered with Oxford's Jenner Institute for vaccine research, has gained access to the $1.2 billion cash injection from the U.S. government to produce at least 300 million doses of their still-unapproved vaccine as soon as this fall.

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AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told CBS News on Thursday that the trial "AZD1222" vaccine shows more promise than most of the dozens of others in development around the world.

"What we know is that we have a vaccine that has a good chance to work. It uses a technology that has been validated before with other vaccines, so we know a lot about it," he said. "Of course it may fail, but there is a good chance it will work, and essentially the [Trump] administration is saying, 'we're going to make a bet.' The only way to get a vaccine ready for patients in September and October is to start manufacturing it now."

Soriot said his company was preparing to produce 1 billion doses of the vaccine by the end of 2021.  

The funding for AstraZeneca's work comes via the U.S. program dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," the White House initiative aimed at accelerating the development and distribution of vaccines - and to ensure U.S. citizens stay at the front of the line - through investments in and partnerships with various projects around the globe. The investment in the U.K. vaccine is the biggest to date, however, by a significant margin.

"I've never seen anything move that fast," Soriot said about the push from Washington. "We have to move fast: It's a question of getting these vaccines to the American people as soon as possible. It's been a fantastic experience."

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A vital part of the Oxford team's next phase in trials includes testing the vaccine on health care workers.

"We want individuals who are at more risk of infection with COVID-19, because that allows us to tell just how well the vaccine performs," Pollard said. "We will get lots and lots of information about the immune response to the vaccine, but at this moment, we don't know exactly how much of an immune response you need for protection. In this trial it's all about natural exposure in the real world to see whether or not the vaccine can prevent infection."

The "real world" right now presents researchers something of a paradox: Their goal is to prevent people becoming infected, but they also need people to be exposed to the virus to make sure their vaccine works. The more people adhere to social distancing guidelines and strict hygiene, the more the infection rate among the general population goes down.

That makes it more difficult to know for certain whether those participating in the trials who have been given the vaccine have truly developed immunity, or whether they simply haven't been exposed.

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It's an added challenge in the quest for reliable data - especially on the shorter-than-ever timescale laid out for their work, and it's a big reason the next phase will include health workers.

With economies crippled under coronavirus lockdowns across the globe, a vaccine can't come too soon.

Soriot said that for him, the mission is personal, too: He's been unable to visit his 92-year-old mother for months.

"We have to restart the economy and we have to go back to a normal life; not worry about going to a restaurant and mixing with people, not worried about visiting our parents," he said. "We need a solution." 

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