British scientists are on the brink of developing a vaccine to combat deadly coronavirus. The first results from tests on animals have shown the medication they are working on is behaving exactly as the scientists hoped it would.
And Prime Minister Boris Johnson will dramatically step up crisis plans by imposing a ban on mass gatherings from next weekend.
The possibility of a vaccine came as the total number of UK cases rose by 208 to 798 yesterday. One more person died of the virus – the first in Scotland – to bring the UK death toll to 11. The Government’s advice that people should work at home if possible meant that trains and roads around the country were deserted.
In the US, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and said £38billion would be available to fight the virus.
Earlier this week, the President ordered flight restrictions to be imposed on 26 European countries, banning flights from Europe to land in the US.
Meanwhile, President Trump has raised the possibility that the UK could be added to the US no-fly ban.
Mr Trump said: “We may have to include the UK in the European travel ban after the number of cases increased.”
Europe was also declared the pandemic’s new epicentre, the World Health Organisation said yesterday.
But hopes of a cure grew last night.
The encouraging test results mean scientists are confident they are on track to develop an effective treatment that will work safely in humans.
The team at Imperial College London, one of the most respected scientific institutions in the world, is now desperate for the Government to provide the £2million needed to move to human trials.
The research team of five top scientists in the university’s Department of Infectious Disease is led by top virologist Professor Robin Shattock.
Among those working on the project to find a cure is senior researcher Dr Paul McKay, who said: “We’ve made a vaccine and already tested it in mice. I’ve got results from a month after I injected those and the vaccine works really, really well.
“The next thing is that we need the Government to fund us to do human clinical trials. The responses in the mice were huge so I really can’t see that it would be a poor response in people.”
The team started work on the vaccine on January 21 and had a drug ready for testing in just two weeks – much faster than the three years it usually takes.
On February 13, 32 mice were injected with doses of between 0.01 and 10 micrograms.
They showed a strong immune response to all doses, producing the antibodies needed to fight the killer bug.
The vaccine works by instructing muscle cells to produce a protein found on the surface of the virus, triggering an immune response and teaching the body how to fight off infections in future.
Dr McKay is confident the same effect can be achieved in humans.
The team are now working with scientists in Paris to test the vaccine in monkeys, which received the inoculation on Monday and will be monitored for the next two to four weeks.
They have applied for further funding from the Medical Research Council and are waiting to hear if it will be granted next week.
Dr McKay yesterday urged the Government to back British research rather than waiting for another country to bring a vaccine to market.
He added: “If we get the funding for the human clinical trials, we will put it into people by June.
“If British scientists here develop a vaccine it would be great if the Government supported it.”
The team at Imperial hope their vaccine could be available for patients in a year.
The breakthrough came as Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, warned that the coronavirus is likely to become an “annual virus”, like seasonal flu.
He said the Government’s plan was not to suppress Covid-19 entirely but to spread out the number of people who are sick at any one time.
He said: “You can’t stop it, so you should end up with a broader peak during which time you’d anticipate that more people would get immunity to this.
“That in itself becomes a protective part of this process.”
While some have criticised Britain for inaction, Sir Patrick said it was hoped the approach would create “herd immunity”.
This occurs when a high percentage of the population is immune to a disease, making it difficult for it to spread.
If enough stronger people contract the virus in the coming months, recover and develop immunity, this could protect the most vulnerable.
Sir Patrick said: “About 60 percent is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity.”
The Government has also invested £20million in the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a team of international experts also racing to make a vaccine.
CEPI’s director of vaccine research and development Dr Melanie Saville said her team currently have six vaccines in development.
She added: “The coronavirus is everywhere now – it’s a pandemic.
“And that means we need access to vaccines irrespective of where people are in the world, irrespective of their ability to pay.”