Home>News>World>Centre Court ovations, limbo-dancing grans – it’s all been humbling, say Oxford vaccine creators

Centre Court ovations, limbo-dancing grans – it’s all been humbling, say Oxford vaccine creators

Centre Court ovations, limbo-dancing grans – it’s all been humbling, say Oxford vaccine creators

Sarah Gilbert’s experiences at Wimbledon last week clearly had a profound impact on the medical researcher – though it was not the standing ovation that the vaccine pioneer received on Centre Court that turned her head. It was the sleekly efficient operations she experienced at the tennis championships that most impressed her.

“Everything goes really, really smoothly there because they’ve got years of experience at Wimbledon,” she told the Observer last week. “They have also got extremely well trained staff and have had years of investment in infrastructure.”

And that list of attributes provides an unexpected but intriguing contrast with vaccine development in the UK, added Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University. “Yes, we’ve got the years of experience and yes we’ve got the fantastic staff. But we have not had the investment in the infrastructure and that made our efforts in developing our Covid-19 vaccine so much more difficult.”

In particular, she complained about the lack of vaccine manufacturing plant in the UK that made it hard to make enough supplies to begin their clinical trials. “You need an excellent supply of vaccine right from the beginning and not be trying to work out where your doses are coming from while you’re beginning your trials. That is still a big problem in the UK.”

Centre Court ovations, limbo-dancing grans – it’s all been humbling, say Oxford vaccine creators

Gilbert was speaking last week with her colleague Catherine Green. The pair will publish their book, Vaxxers: The Inside Story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the Race Against the Virus (Hodder & Stoughton) on 8 July. Given the mighty efforts involved in producing a Covid-19 vaccine on its own, finding time to write a book on their work seems exceptional.

“There are complexities and nuances that can’t always be captured in a headline or a newspaper article,” said Green. “We wanted the opportunity to tell the story in a complete version.”

It is an extraordinary story with a remarkable beginning and an astonishing denouement. On New Year’s Day 2020, Gilbert read about four people in China suffering from a strange pneumonia. Within two weeks, she, Green and colleagues had designed a vaccine against a pathogen that hardly anyone had heard about. A year later, it was rolled out across the world and is destined to save millions of lives.

Yet, as the book makes clear, the story was anything but unmitigated joy. In their own words, their vaccine was treated as a political football. Americans attacked their trial data, the French accused the vaccine of lack of effectiveness and the Germans dithered about whether to give it to old or young people.

“Yet this had been a huge undertaking,” added Green. “You would normally spend 10 years ramping up production of a brand new vaccine. To do it in 10 months was phenomenal.”

And both were at pains to praise AstraZeneca for taking on the vaccine they had developed. “It was a massive commitment for a pharmaceutical company to take on a bunch of academics like us and work with us to deliver a vaccine at cost so that it could be given to lower income countries,” said Green. “When Boris Johnson says we only have vaccines because of greed and capitalism that is entirely unfair. There was no greed or capitalism in our case.”

In general, both scientists say they have avoided the harassment that has been the occasional problem for other public figures such as Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer.

“The emails and thank you notes we get have been humbling, really,” said Green. “We received one video recently of a grandmother doing a limbo dance with her granddaughter at a birthday party they didn’t expect to be able to hold had it not been for the vaccine. It was lovely.”

Gilbert and Green are now working with AstraZeneca on versions of the vaccine that have been designed to tackle the beta (first discovered in South Africa) virus variant with trials starting in the UK and several other nations last week. “The original vaccine is still very effective against the alpha and delta variants but the beta version is antigenically different. And so that’s why we testing that one as a different vaccine,” said Gilbert.

In general, both Gilbert and Green are optimistic that vaccines have broken the link between Covid-19 infections and admissions to hospital. “However, a new variant could arise, one that is both highly transmissible and antigenically different from previous ones. So we’re not completely out of the woods,” said Gilbert.

“And that’s why I’m very worried about getting vaccines around the rest of the world, because we need to stop the virus being transmitted and halt its continued evolution so that a new variant that is really difficult to deal with does not emerge.”


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