Sydney man kicks off coronavirus vaccine trial at Oxford University

A Sydney man says testing a potential coronavirus vaccine at Oxford University was "the right thing to do", while the team behind the trial are cautiously optimistic it will work.

Sydney man Edward O'Neill is one of the first to be injected with a potential coronavirus vaccine at Oxford University.

Sydney man Edward O'Neill was one of the first to be injected with a potential coronavirus vaccine at Oxford University. Source: SBS

An Australian man is one of the first two people to be injected with a potential coronavirus vaccine being developed at Britain’s Oxford University. 

Edward O’Neill moved to the UK two years ago from Sydney to conduct radiation oncology research. Vaccine development isn’t his field of expertise, but he was eager to volunteer for this trial. 

“I think it’s the right thing to do, to help with something the whole world is desperate for,” he told SBS News.

“I thought ‘they know what they’re doing’, they’ve got a lot riding on it and there’s a lot of evidence that it will work, so I thought I’d give it a go.”

Sydney man kicks off coronavirus vaccine trial at Oxford University

The potential vaccine has been created in just three months. It would normally take years. It’s one of several in development around the world.

More than 800 people have been recruited for the Oxford study. Half will receive the COVID-19 vaccine, while the other half will receive a control vaccine that protects against meningitis but not the coronavirus. Those taking part won’t know which they’ll receive. But they do know there’s a small risk to their health. 

Dr O’Neill says he’s not concerned, nor is his wife.

“She thought it was a great idea, she was a little annoyed she couldn’t do it herself. I guess there’s always just that little niggling doubt, but she was confident that was the right thing to do.”

The team behind the trial is cautiously optimistic it will work. If it does, they hope to have a million doses ready by September, but mass manufacturing could take much longer.

“I think everyone agrees it’s the only way to get out of the lockdown, the social testing, the only way to get back to our everyday lives,” Professor Sarah Gilbert said.

The scientists will only know how effective the vaccine is if the volunteers who received the COVID-19 vaccine are exposed to the disease; they won’t be deliberately infected.

“If there's still plenty of transmission in the population who are vaccinated, we will know quite soon whether the vaccine works,” Professor Andrew Pollard said.

“But if as a result of the lockdown, there's very small numbers of cases in the months ahead, it could take some time before we have an answer."

Dr O’Neill will have to write a daily log to list any symptoms and will give blood samples at regular intervals - in addition to continuing his own work while in lockdown.

“It is strange. Right now, I’m banned from the lab, but in many ways I’m continuing doing experimentation, I just happen to be the experiment,” he said.

“It’s almost as if the weight of the world is on my shoulder. My left shoulder (where he was injected) in particular!”     

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000. SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments.

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Published 24 April 2020 at 7:42am, updated 24 April 2020 at 9:39am
By Ben Lewis