Italy seeks volunteers for Covid-19 vaccine trial

Italian researchers hope to test a potential vaccine against the new coronavirus on 300 volunteers, starting as soon as next month.

Italy seeks volunteers for Covid-19 vaccine trial
Potential Covid-19 vaccines are being tested around the world. Photo: Yasin Akgul/AFP

Volunteers in Italy could receive the first doses in December, as scientists begin a Phase 3 clinical trial of the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca pharmaceutical group and partly manufactured and bottled by two Italian companies near Rome.

The vaccine, one of several in development around the world, is among the most advanced, with a large-scale trial already underway on as many as 10,000 people in the UK.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about getting a flu vaccination in Italy this year

Researchers are seeking 300 volunteers for the two-year Italian trial, which will be carried out by seven institutions starting with the University Hospital of Modena. 

Though one recent study suggested that nearly one in two people in Italy would be 'hesitant' about getting a new Covid-19 vaccine, the hospital has already been inundated with inquiries from people interested in taking part, head of the infectious diseases department Cristina Mussini told reporters this week.

The hospital plans to set up a dedicated phone hotline to collect applications throughout November, with spots going to the first people who volunteer and meet the selection criteria. 

Doses of the Oxford vaccine at a facility near Rome, where Italian company Catalent Biologics is responsible for packaging it. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Participants should be over 18, not pregnant or immunosuppressed, and should not have already contracted a severe case of Covid-19.

Only 200 of them will receive the experimental vaccine, with the remaining 100 getting a placebo. Neither subjects nor researchers will be informed which one each volunteer gets until the study is complete.

Participants will receive two doses and be subjected to periodic blood and health checks over a total of two years, though the first results of the study are expected to be announced after six months.

Phase 3 trials are the final tests before regulators decide whether to approve a drug. The European Medicines Agency, which reviews drugs for use within the European Union, hopes to fast-track approval for Covid-19 vaccines, and the head of Italy's Higher Health Council, Franco Locatelli, has said the first doses could be available in spring 2021.

The new trial is separate from an early-stage trial underway in Rome, where researchers at the Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases are testing a different vaccine developed by Italian biotech company ReiThera on a much smaller sample of volunteers.

How does the vaccine work?

Officially known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 or AZD1222, the Oxford vaccine works by targeting a spiky structure on the surface of the coronavirus called the S protein, which it uses to attach to human cells and cause an infection.

A model of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Photo: Jens Schlueter/AFP

The genetic material of the new virus's S protein is placed in a weakened version of a common cold virus from chimpanzees that has been modified to prevent it being able to replicate in humans, so that after injection copies of only the S protein (not the virus) are produced.

The idea is that the body will detect the S protein and develop an immune response, teaching the immune system to attack S proteins in future. If the new virus enters a vaccinated person's body, scientists hope the immune system would target its surface spikes, thereby helping to prevent it binding to cells and reproducing.

“A significant proportion of vaccines that are tested in clinical trials don't work,” warns the Oxford Vaccine Centre, which developed the vaccine with Oxford University’s Jenner Institute.

“If we are unable to show that the vaccine is protective against the virus, we would review progress, examine alternative approaches, such as using different numbers of doses, and would potentially stop the programme.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

From ear piercings to flu jabs, Italian ‘farmacie’ are among the most useful stores in the country, but they’re also very odd places. Here are our tips on getting through the pharmacy experience.

Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

Italian pharmacies aren’t just stores selling prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

As a customer, you’ll find all sorts of natural remedies, basic health supplies and personal care items on their shelves. 

You’ll also be able to receive basic medical services (for instance, blood pressure checks, Covid tests and flu jabs) and some non-health-related ones (like getting your ears pierced!) in most branches. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I still get the flu vaccine in Italy? 

But, while being extremely useful stores, Italian farmacie (pronunciation available here) are also peculiar places and their set of unwritten rules and solidified traditions may well throw off newcomers.. 

So here are five tips that might help you complete your first expeditions to your local pharmacy without making a fool of yourself.

1 – Decipher your doctor’s scribbles before your trip

Much like some of their foreign colleagues, Italian GPs have a penchant for writing prescriptions that no one else is actually able to read. 

We might never find out why doctors seem so intent on making ancient hieroglyphs fashionable again, but their calligraphic efforts will surely get in the way of you trying to buy whatever medicine you need to survive. 

To avoid hiccups, make sure you know exactly what you need to get. If in doubt, reach out to your GP to confirm.

Don’t rely on pharmacists being able to figure out your doctor’s handwriting because they often have no clue either.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor’s appointment in Italy 

Pharmacy in Codogno, near Milan

In most small towns and rural areas local pharmacies have very ‘thin’ opening hours. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

2 – Double-check the pharmacy’s opening times

If you’re from the UK or the US, you might be used to pharmacies being open from 8am to 10pm on weekdays and having slightly reduced opening times over the weekend. 

You can forget about that in Italy. In big cities, most pharmacies will shut no later than 8pm on weekdays and will be closed on either Saturdays or Sundays.

READ ALSO: Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Italy 

As for small towns or villages, opening times will have a nice Middle Ages vibe to them, with local stores remaining shut on weekends and keeping their doors open from 9am to 12.30pm and then from 3.30pm to 7.30pm on weekdays. 

So always check your local pharmacy’s hours before leaving home and, should their times not be available online, call them up. An awkward phone conversation with the pharmacist is still preferable to a wasted trip.

3 – Get the ‘numerino

Some Italian pharmacies have a ticket-dispensing machine with the aim of regulating the queue – a concept which is still foreign to many across the country.

All customers are expected to get a numbered paper ticket (the famed ‘numerino’) from the above machine and wait for their number to be called to walk up to the pharmacist’s desk. 

Now, the law of the land categorically prohibits customers from getting within a five-metre radius of the desk without a numerino

Also, trying to break that rule may result in a number of disdainful sideways glances from local customers.

4 – You cannot escape the in-store conversations, so embrace them 

Pharmacies aren’t just stores. They’re a cornerstone of Italian life and locals do a good deal of socialising on the premises. 

After all, the waiting times are often a bit dispiriting, so how can you blame them for killing the time?

Small pharmacy in Italy

Pharmacies are an essential part of Italian life and culture. Photo by Marco SABADIN / AFP

You might think that locals won’t want to talk to you because you’re a foreigner or don’t know the language too well, but you’ll marvel at how chatty some are.

While chit-chat might not be your cup of tea, talking with locals might help you improve your Italian, so it’s worth a shot.

5 – “Vuoi scaricarlo?”

The pharmacist finally gets you what you need and you’re now thinking that your mission is over. Well, not yet.

Before charging you for the items in question, the pharmacist will ask you whether you’d like to ‘scaricarli’ (literally, ‘offload them’) or not, which, no matter how good your Italian is, will not make any sense to you.

What the pharmacist is actually asking you is whether you want to link the purchase to your codice fiscale (tax code). 

READ ALSO: Codice fiscale: How to get your Italian tax code (and why you need one)   

That’s because Italy offers residents a 19-percent discount on some health-related expenses, which can be claimed through one’s annual income declaration (dichiarazione dei redditi) by attaching the receipts of all the eligible payments.

Whether you want to scaricare or not, this is the last obstacle before you can make your way back home.