SCIENTISTS at Public Health England's facility at Porton Down are helping the international effort to find a vaccine for coronavirus by evaluating potential drugs before they hit clinical trials.

Teams at Public Health England (PHE) have been awarded 500,000 US dollars (£464,700) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help finance their role in finding a drug to inoculate against Covid-19.

The grant is part of the US government's plans to help bolster the global response to the pandemic, PHE said.

The funding follows a request from international foundation the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) for PHE to assist in evaluating vaccines under development.

It is believed clinical trials for a vaccine developed by Oxford University could commence as soon as this April, PHE said.

PHE researchers at its facility in Porton Down, Salisbury, have collaborated with teams at Liverpool and Bristol universities to create an exact replica of Covid-19 for use in the testing process.

It said it will start evaluation of the Oxford University vaccine next week, with clinical trials potentially commencing before the end of next month.

PHE will help evaluate and test different versions of vaccines as they are developed, a spokeswoman said, and expects to receive further funding from Cepi to finance this work.

Professor Miles Carroll, deputy director of the National Infection Service at PHE, said: "PHE is uniquely positioned to support and drive the country's hunt for a coronavirus vaccine - using tried and tested methods for the rapid development of interventions for emerging diseases.

"We look forward to continuing to work with world-leading academic and pharmaceutical partners to accelerate progress towards safe and effective interventions to limit the impact of this new infection as rapidly as possible."

Innovation minister Lord Bethell said: "It makes me so proud to see PHE Porton Down demonstrate its world-beating expertise with this US FDA award.

"It is a powerful testimony to the expertise and commitment of the remarkable PHE team at this historic site."