Meet the researcher working to deliver a new Covid vaccine

Scientists and medical staff standing outside entrance to clinical research facility wearing face masks

Prof Jeremy Turner, pictured front and centre, with the NNUH Novavax vaccine trial team at the Clinical Research Facility at Norwich Research Park - Credit: NNUH

A new weapon in the fight against Covid-19 is on the horizon, thanks to researchers at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) at Norwich Research Park. Consultant endocrinologist Professor Jeremy Turner explains his work on the Novavax trial.

Portrait of man

Prof Jeremy Turner, consultant endocrinologist and co-principal investigator of the Novavax vaccine trial at NNUH - Credit: Jeremy Turner

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.  

What does your work on the vaccine entail?

I work with Dr Christopher Jeanes, consultant in infectious diseases, to oversee an investigative clinical trial into a new Covid-19 vaccine developed by Novavax, a US biotechnology company. There are more than 15,000 people in the UK participating in this trial and 500 of those are in Norwich.

The amount of organisation involved in delivering a 500-participant study is immense. Normally, setting up a trial like this takes nine months, whereas we had around four weeks! The complications, logistics and practicalities we had to overcome were monumental, but we successfully launched the trial in October 2020. We are currently in Phase 3 of the trial and it will continue until this November.

What can you tell us about the Novavax vaccine?

Whereas the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are RNA-based (ribonucleic acid is a molecule similar to DNA), Novavax is a much more conventional example of vaccine technology. It is composed of a protein called NVX-CoV2373, which is a tiny fragment of the virus’s outer coat – the part that forms that spike we see on the surface of the coronavirus.

The Novavax vaccine is great because it is stable at fridge temperature. Like many other vaccines it requires two doses, 21 days apart. Our application to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will be made imminently and I am hopeful that Novavax will be available in the late spring or early summer.

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Will the vaccine protect us against Covid-19?

The Novavax vaccine has 95% efficacy against the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. This means in clinical trials 5% of those who contracted Covid-19 had received the vaccine. It is also 86% effective against the Kent variant, with the two figures averaging out at 89.3%. A good flu vaccine is about 60% effective, so we are over the moon with 89.3% efficacy. Another Novavax trial in South Africa is in its second phase and has demonstrated 60% efficacy against the South African variant.

However, protection and immunity are really about vaccinating whole populations and less about individuals. There are two aspects.

The first is: does the vaccine stop people getting ill, being admitted to hospital, and dying? The answer is ‘Yes’, we have good evidence that this vaccine does.

The second is: does it prevent the virus spreading throughout the population? We don’t actually know the answer to that yet, though we would expect it to be so. A lot of these questions are yet to be researched and answered definitively. But it is impossible not to be optimistic and the data is starting to support that optimism.

Where did the trial take place?

The trial was delivered in the NNUH-run Clinical Research Facility (CRF) at the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park, in collaboration with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and its Clinical Research Network (CRN). I am also clinical director for the CRN in the East of England and it is a great privilege to be one tiny part of a project like this.

We should be so proud of the NIHR and Norwich Research Park. They put us at the absolute forefront of global medical research. We could not have delivered this study without the CRF – it is a cutting-edge, 21st-century research facility. And, of course, there’s no way we could have done this without the good folk of Norfolk freely giving up their time.

Cyclist riding uphill on a mountain slope

Jeremy Turner is never happier than when he is on his bike - Credit: Jeremy Tuner/Lionel Boiscommun

What do you get up to when you are not working?

At the moment, when I’m not working, I mainly work (laughs). I’ve been running the Covid admission unit as well, so I have been right at the coalface. But when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, I’m never happier than when cycling around the Norfolk countryside. I do the Norwich 100 and the Cambridge to Norwich bike rides most years. I feel very lucky to live in such a beautiful city in the middle of such a beautiful county with its beautiful coastline.

Professor Jeremy Turner is co-principal investigator of the Novavax vaccine trial at Norwich Research Park.

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