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Experts have stressed the preliminary conclusions have not yet been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal – but lead researcher Dr David Matthews, of Bristol University, said the results were “good news”. The AstraZeneca Oxford COVID-19 vaccine (known as both ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 and AZD1222) is now undergoing Phase III clinical trials, having already undergone rigorous testing to ensure the highest standards of quality and safety.
The team at Bristol University has used recently developed techniques to further validate that the vaccine accurately follows genetic instructions which have been programmed into it by the Oxford team.
The analysis provides greater clarity and detail about how the vaccine successfully provokes a strong immune response.
Dr Matthews, who is Reader in Virology from Bristol’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine (CMM), said: “This is an important study as we are able to confirm that the genetic instructions underpinning this vaccine, which is being developed as fast as safely possible, are correctly followed when they get into a human cell.
Until now, the technology hasn’t been able to provide answers with such clarity, but we now know the vaccine is doing everything we expected and that is only good news in our fight against the illness
Dr David Matthews
“Until now, the technology hasn’t been able to provide answers with such clarity, but we now know the vaccine is doing everything we expected and that is only good news in our fight against the illness.”
The Bristol study was facilitated with support from Dr Andrew Davidson, Reader in Systems Virology in CMM and Bristol UNCOVER, and through key collaborations with Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford, and AstraZeneca.
Prof Gilbert added: “This is a wonderful example of cross-disciplinary collaboration, using new technology to examine exactly what the vaccine does when it gets inside a human cell.
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“The study confirms that large amounts of the coronavirus spike protein are produced with great accuracy, and this goes a long way to explaining the success of the vaccine in inducing a strong immune response.”
The Oxford vaccine is made by taking a common cold virus (adenovirus) from chimpanzees and then removing roughly 20 per cent of the virus’s instructions.
By doing that, they ensure the vaccine cannot replicate or cause disease in humans, but can still be produced in the laboratory under special conditions.
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Removing the genetic instructions frees up space to add the instructions for the spike protein from SARS-CoV-2.
Once inside a human cell, the genetic instructions for the spike protein need to be ‘photocopied’ many times – a process scientists refer to as transcription.
In any vaccine system, it is these ‘photocopies’ which are directly used to make large amounts of the spike protein.
Once the spike protein is made, the immune system reacts to it and this pre-trains the immune system to identify a real COVID-19 infection.
Therefore, when the person vaccinated is confronted with the SARS-CoV-2 virus their immune system is ready to attack it.
Adenoviruses have been used for many years to make vaccines, and are always tested to ensure every batch of vaccine has the correct copy of genetic instructions embedded in the vaccine.
In a world-first, researchers at Bristol were also able to directly check thousands and thousands of the ‘photocopied’ instructions produced by the Oxford vaccine within a cell.
Consequently, they were able to directly validate that the instructions were being copied correctly and accurately, offering greater assurance about the vaccine’s efficacy.
Trials of the vaccine, being developed in conjunction with AstraZeneca, are ongoing despite the death of a volunteer in Brazil.
Oxford researchers said a “careful assessment” had revealed no safety concerns, and that the 28-year-old man had not actually been given the administered with the vaccine.
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