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How Oxford Scientists Developed AstraZeneca's 'Covishield' Vaccine in Record Time

A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and U.K.-based drugmaker AstraZeneca is checked. (Gareth Fuller/Pool via AP)

A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and U.K.-based drugmaker AstraZeneca is checked. (Gareth Fuller/Pool via AP)

ChAdOx1 as it can generate a strong immune response and is not a replicating virus, so it cannot cause an infection. It had already been used safely in thousands of subjects in clinical trials of vaccines for other diseases including Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), which is caused by another type of coronavirus.

As the world's largest vaccination drive is about to start in India on Saturday, one of the two vaccines approved so far has been Oxford-AstraZeneca's 'Covishield.'

'Covishield' has been manufactured in Serum Institute of India, in Pune. According to sources, 95 per cent of the 1.1 crore doses of Covishield vaccine purchased by the government have been delivered and shipped to nearly 60 consignee points across India in two days.

But before the vaccine is actually rolled out - how did it come about? Tonia Thomas, Vaccine Knowledge Project Manager at the University of Oxford and Rachel Colin-Jones, Visiting Academic, Centre for Clinical Vaccinology and Tropical Medicine, University of Oxford explain the process behind what went into making the vaccine in a piece published in The Conversation.

They explain how, "Typically, developing a vaccine takes decades – but we have several available for COVID-19 after just 12 months. Here’s how we managed this for the Oxford vaccine."

They also added how they had a head-start for the vaccine, even before Covid-19 was first detected in China. "We had already developed a delivery method – or “platform” – for our vaccine and had been testing it for other diseases for almost ten years. Known as the ChAdOx1 viral vector technology, this platform was created by modifying a harmless adenovirus that causes the common cold in chimpanzees."

They added that they chose ChAdOx1 as it can generate a strong immune response and is not a replicating virus, so it cannot cause an infection. It had already been used safely in thousands of subjects in clinical trials of vaccines for other diseases including Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), which is caused by another type of coronavirus.

The reason they were already on a vaccine? 'Disease X.' The ongoing research into ChAdOx1 was part of preparing for 'Disease X,' one of eight diseases prioritised for research by the World Health Organization (WHO) due to the risk they pose to public health.

Also Read: What is 'Disease X'? Deadlier Than Covid-19, Ebola and May Become the Next Pandemic

They added how once researchers in China had mapped the genetic sequence of the coronavirus, they were able to quickly produce the COVID-19 vaccine by combining the ChAdOx1 vector with the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

The preparation for Disease X ultimately allowed "our research team to move straight into testing our vaccine in animals in early 2020, and then to combine the data from these tests with data we had already gathered in previous trials using ChAdOx1, to show that what we were developing worked."

Other than India, the vaccine has been approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom, Morocco, Argentina and El Salvador.

Serum Institute of India (SII) chief executive Adar Poonawalla on Tuesday said there are plans to provide 50 to 60 million vials to the government either by January or February, even as 11 million doses of Covishield vaccine are currently being rolled out.

Speaking to the select media persons at the SII facility, Poonawalla said the real challenge lies in taking the vaccine to the "common man, to the vulnerable groups of people and to healthcare workers."

He also said that once the SII get the requisite permission, the vaccine will be made available in the private market at the cost Rs 1,000.

"We have given priority to India. We will provide as many doses as the nation demands. Rest of the vaccine, we will export. We are getting request from Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Africa, and there are COVAX partners also," said Poonawalla. He also added that the SII's production capacity is bigger than the world and that is why the company is under the maximum pressure to manufacture.

Responding to a query on the safety of the vaccine, he said all COVID-19 vaccines have passed all the safety parameters. "DCGI (Drugs Controller General of India) will not provide the license to a vaccine unless its efficacy and safety are not proved. All Indian vaccines are safe, effective, and it is advisable that people should take them."

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