At a time when the delivery of a 'working' COVID-19 vaccine has become an increasingly politicised factor, the recent halt to the AstraZeneca Oxford vaccine trials may seem direr than it really is. This week, the British-Swedish pharma company brought its much-anticipated phase three trials of the potential vaccine to a halt after a participant had an unexpectedly severe side-effect to the vaccine. While the initial news was enough to cause knee-jerk reactions of doom and gloom with even the AstraZeneca stocks taking a tumble, the company swiftly clarified that the halt was entirely voluntary and given the scale and importance of the task at hand, routine and expected. It was later announced that the patient in question was one of the many UK volunteers and that she had developed symptoms that are consistent with a rare spinal inflammatory disorder. It was further announced that the patient was already mostly recovered and was expected to be out of the hospital soon.
All the same, it is likely that the trial will not immediately continue at this stage though some sources have stated that it is likely that the trials will continue from the next week itself. As the pharma company itself stated, they must have an independent outside review of the trial to discover the particular circumstances behind the patient developing such unusual side-effects. Experts who were approached to comment on what this delay could mean for vaccine development worldwide have given a wide-ranging series of likely scenarios. If, for instance, it was found that the spinal disorder has nothing to do with the vaccine, then the trials could resume after a few weeks or months. If, however, a link is drawn between the vaccine and the unusual symptoms, then it is safe to say that the vaccine will be scrapped for good. For developers using similar platforms and methods to the Oxford vaccine, this would mean a series of small delays as they revise consent forms and patient brochures with an updated listing of possible risks. For those using entirely separate platforms, however, there would be little to no direct spillover. The delay may well give other vaccine makers the time to catch-up to the front runner.
On the Indian front, this development has meant that the Serum Institute of India also announced a halt to the ongoing trials of the vaccine in India after the DGCI issued a stern letter to the company asking it to explain why it was not informed of AstraZeneca halt. The trials have been put on an indefinite halt until AstraZeneca itself resumes its trials. As has been made abundantly clear by the many experts who have weighed in, the delay itself is no cause for panic or concern. What may be problematic is the possibility that many countries may still push up the timetables for the vaccine to be brought to the market on an emergency basis with a largely political aim. The pandemic has created a wave of dissatisfaction against elected authority at the moment on account of the large global failure to contain the pandemic and many leaders facing election will bank on the vaccine to bring them the necessary political support. This is precisely the group that will be likely to have an alarmist reaction to the vaccine trial halt. For society at large, all this could mean is a small bit of reality adjustment to a vaccine timetable that has been bloated by undue optimism and blatant misinformation. It is the general hope of many that the halt may have the effect of allaying the escalating pressure to meet political deadlines which have been pushed up to an unsafe and unrealistic extent in many nations. A 'cheap' lesson against the follies of rushing the scientific process as it were. For its part, AstraZeneca has stated that so long as they can continue their trials soon, they should have a fair idea of whether the experimental vaccine will work by year-end.