Coronavirus: UK launches taskforce to speed up search for COVID-19 vaccine

The government has launched a taskforce to accelerate the search for a coronavirus vaccine in the UK.

Downing Street’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam have been tasked with leading the operation.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma announced the taskforce at Number 10’s daily coronavirus news briefing on Friday, adding that the goal was to “make sure a vaccine is made available to the public as quickly as possible”.

“It comprises representatives from government, industry, academia and regulators,” he said.

“We are looking forward, so, when we do make a breakthrough we are ready to manufacture by the millions.

“One tool in this fight will be the UK’s first vaccines manufacturing innovation centre based in Harwell.

“The government will be accelerating the building of this facility.”

But Sir Patrick said developing a vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, would be a “complicated and difficult process”, which will take “many months” at least.

Projects are already ongoing at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London, and Mr Sharma said the government had green-lit another 21 with £14m of state funding.

Professor Sarah Gilbert is leading the Oxford project and is so confident that their work will prove successful she suggested last week that there could be a vaccine ready and manufactured by September.

Most projections estimate that a vaccine will be available by the spring of 2021 at the earliest.

Asked about the project by Sky’s science correspondent Thomas Moore, Mr Sharma said: “We are supportive of the vaccine work that is going on at Oxford, also at Imperial, and are stepping up as required to support those efforts.

“It’s not just about getting a vaccine, it’s about manufacturing it at some scale.”

While Sir Patrick said he was encouraged by the enthusiasm of those behind the projects, he admitted: “Each single project does not have a high probability of success.”

He added: “It’s never the case that you know you’ve got a vaccine that’s going to work.

“The second thing is the safety and it’s incredibly important that these vaccines are tested properly, that’s why it takes some time to get to the clinical trials and understand the potential unwanted effects of a vaccine.”

Another large increase in deaths across UK hospitals was announced just hours before the daily briefing began, with the spike exceeding 800 for the second consecutive day.

The Department of Health recorded 847 new COVID-19 fatalities, taking the nationwide total to 14,576.

Sir Patrick told Friday’s briefing that deaths would continue at a large scale for some time, before they “begin to come down slowly” once the curve plateaus.

He added: “We’re headed in the right direction, the measures that are being taken are making a difference.”

Government figures still do not include coronavirus deaths in care homes, hospices and other settings outside hospital, masking the true number of people who have passed away after contracting the disease.

Announcing an extension to the UK lockdown on Thursday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged that there were still “issues with the virus spreading” in places like care homes.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, released on Thursday, suggested there were around 75% more coronavirus-related fatalities in England and Wales last month than reported by the government.

Following widespread criticism of its testing regime, the government has repeatedly promised to ramp up testing for social care staff to match the ambition shown regarding those working in the NHS.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also announced that more frontline public service workers, including the police, prison workers and fire service personnel, can also now be tested.

The expansion has been rolled out amid fears supplies are going to waste, with the government still not close to matching its target of carrying out 100,000 tests per day by the end of April.

The latest count came in at 21,328, taking the total number of tests carried out in the UK so far to 438,991.

Mr Hancock revealed the government’s latest plans to increase testing figures while giving evidence to an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the preparedness of the UK to deal with such a coronavirus outbreak.

During the same meeting, Professor Anthony Costello warned the Health and Social Care Committee that the government was “too slow” to prepare for the current epidemic and that further waves were on the way.

The leading physician, from University College London’s Institute for Global Health, told MPs including former health secretary Jeremy Hunt that the UK would probably end up with the highest coronavirus death rate in Europe.

In order to avoid another large spike in fatalities once the country begins to ease its lockdown measures, he said the government must up community testing capacity and embrace South Korea-style contact tracing.

(c) Sky News 2020: Coronavirus: UK launches taskforce to speed up search for COVID-19 vaccine

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