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‘No assumption’ coronavirus vaccine will be developed, chief adviser says

By Nina Massey, PA Science Correspondent, and Luke Powell, PA

There is no assumption a coronavirus vaccine will be available in the immediate future, MPs have heard.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said the UK is looking at a number of options because it is not yet known which Covid-19 vaccine candidate will be effective.

His comments come as reports suggest the University of Oxford’s human trials of a potential vaccine are reported to have shown promising results.

Results of the trial are expected to be published next week.

Sir Patrick told the Science and Technology Committee the UK had a “wide range” of vaccine options “because we don’t know which one is going to win.”

He said: “Our assumption is we won’t have it and when we get it we will be thrilled.”

Across the world, dozens of vaccines are in clinical trials, while more than 100 are in development.

Some scientists are calling for people to be deliberately exposed to Covid-19 once they have been injected with the vaccine, a process known as challenge trials.

A number of prominent scientists, including Nobel laureates, have signed an open letter to the head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), from the 1 Day Sooner organisation, arguing this should not be left to chance
They say these challenge trials could accelerate vaccine development.

The signatories, who include Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford where the vaccine was developed, are calling in the NIH, its allies, international funders, and world bodies like the World Health Organisation, to undertake immediate preparations for human challenge trials.

Prof Hill said “collaborative human challenge studies should be feasible and informative in the coming months.”
The only way of knowing if any of the vaccines works is if enough volunteers are subsequently exposed to coronavirus in their daily life and do not get infected.

But with transmission rates falling in the UK that could take a long time.

Asked about human challenge trials, Sir Patrick said the method was a “well-established way” of testing vaccines.
He added: “What are the two big challenges for this virus?”

“Dose and rescue.”

“So the prerequisites to do human challenge studies are to understand what dose causes a safe infection and can you rescue it if you get it wrong?”

Asked what the current answer to those questions was, he said: “We don’t know the dose and we don’t yet know when remdesivir (drug) will rescue the infection.”

“It is absolutely the right thing to explore, but we are not there yet in terms of having all the answers.”
“We need to make sure we progress safely.”

Russian hackers targeting Covid-19 researchers, UK security agency warns

By Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor
Hackers linked to the Russian intelligence agencies are targeting British scientists seeking to develop a coronavirus vaccine, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has warned.

In a joint statement with the US National Security Agency and the Canadian Communication Security Establishment, the NCSC said the attacks were part of a global campaign by the group known as APT29 to steal the secrets of vaccine research.

NCSC director of operations Paul Chichester said: “We condemn these despicable attacks against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic.”

“Working with our allies, the NCSC is committed to protecting our most critical assets and our top priority at this time is to protect the health sector.”

“We would urge organisations to familiarise themselves with the advice we have published to help defend their networks.”

The UK is home to two of the leading research programmes to develop a vaccine based at Oxford University and Imperial College London.

The NCSC said that, together with the US and the Canadians, it had assessed that APT29 – also known as the Dukes or Cozy Bear – was “almost certainly” operating as part of the Russian intelligence services.

It said the group’s campaign of “malicious activity” was aimed predominantly at government, diplomatic, think-tank, healthcare and energy targets in an attempt to steal valuable intellectual property.

The NCSC has previously warned that APT (standing for advanced persistent threat) groups have been targeting organisations involved in both national and international Covid-19 research.

APT29 is said to use a variety of tools and techniques, including spear-phishing and custom malware known as “WellMess” and “WellMail”.

Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.”

“While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behaviour, the UK and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health.”

“The UK will continue to counter those conducting such cyberattacks, and work with our allies to hold perpetrators to account.”

APT29 has been operating for a number of years but this is the first time the NCSC – which operates under the auspices of the GCHQ spy agency – has publicly linked it to Russian intelligence.

The group was previously implicated in attacks on the Democratic Party during the 2016 US presidential elections and its activities are said to be known at the “highest level” of the Russian state.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic it is said to have been targeting research into vaccines and therapeutics in multiple countries, focusing particularly on pharmaceutical and academic institutions.

It is said to specialise in exploiting known vulnerabilities in software and then rapidly “weaponising” them.

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