More specifically, we had made a vaccine against MERS, another coronavirus. It had already been through two early clinical trials and it had raised immune responses as we hoped it would. At this point this all felt quite theoretical. It was still very possible that the outbreak would be controlled quickly and a vaccine would never be needed. But if it was going to be needed, it would be needed fast. There was no time to test different vaccine designs. We had one shot. So the decision was straightforward.
The design for our new vaccine would be based on the design for our MERS vaccine. The next day, Saturday the 11th of January, Chinese scientists made the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus publicly available online. That code — specifically, the 3, letters that coded for the spike protein — was what we needed to finalise our design.
Within 48 hours, we had worked out the exact genetic sequence we needed to make our vaccine. Those years of preparation were also what enabled us to make the first doses of vaccine so quickly. The very first, very small batch of vaccine was made in my lab.
We started to test it on mice and sent some to our long-time collaborators at the National Institutes of Health, Rocky Mountain Labs — who had sprung into action in January just as we had -- to be tested on monkeys. But vaccines that are going to go into human bodies — clinical-grade vaccines -- have to be produced in highly specialised, highly regulated facilities, not university research labs.
The first vaccine the CBF had made for us, back in , had taken eighteen painful months. Since then, we had worked to reduce the time, and the pain. Although to hit those dates, she was keen to emphasise, everything would need to go right. In fact many things did go wrong. As they do when you are working with biological processes. There were tears and there was swearing.
But there was also determination, innovation and resilience. The CBF had doses of vaccine ready for clinical trials by the 22 nd of April, with a further doses soon afterwards. After three months of intense effort. We needed much more, much faster, to support our phase III clinical trials — the trials that tell you whether the vaccine is effective.
In February, at a point when there had been just a handful of confirmed cases in the UK, another researcher at the Jenner Institute, Dr Sandy Douglas and his group, were already thinking about how we could scale up our processes to manufacture millions of doses. It was as if, having just made an excellent sourdough in your kitchen, you now had to work out how to supply every supermarket in the world. Again Sandy benefited from the work that had gone before: not only the processes he and his colleagues had developed, but also their connections with colleagues in the private sector.
When Cath put out the call to the UK BioIndustry Association, explaining our confidence in our technology and our need for assistance, the response was pretty incredible. Offers of support, equipment loans and expertise-sharing, at minimal or no charge, came flooding in. Professor Andrew Pollard and his team at the Oxford Vaccine Group had the task of designing and running our ever-growing, ever-changing clinical trials. Again, happily, they were able to draw on both the existing national infrastructure through the National Institute for Health Research, and their huge network of trusted colleagues across the UK and around the world.
If the vaccine was going to be used around the world we were going to need data from around the world. He knew all the people already. They overcame enormous challenges and made a huge contribution. It all came together. Between us, we had everything we needed to design, manufacture, and test a new vaccine. For the first few months that I was working on this project, my main preoccupation was funding. This, not the science, was the most likely reason we would fail to make a vaccine.
The truth is that previous vaccine development — including for diseases of significant global burden like malaria, and against viruses that could do as much damage as Covid, like influenza A — previous vaccine development has been slow, not because it was impossible or unsafe to go fast, but because going fast was not seen as a high enough priority. Developing vaccines is expensive and funding usually comes in tranches. You apply for a tranche of funding. You wait to hear. That can take a year.
You do a bit of work. You publish the results and present at conferences to attract the attention of funders for the next stage. That can take another year or two. Maybe, if your results look promising, you apply for the next tranche. That takes a year. You apply again, wait another year. And so on. Meanwhile, we try to make sure we have the funds to keep the research group employed, so that if we do get the funding, we are able to carry out the research. When that is not possible, there will be more delays while new staff are recruited and trained.
In February, two funders put in place vastly streamlined and accelerated funding application processes. I duly applied. But I knew it would be weeks before we heard back from either of them. So in February, March and the first weeks of April, we decided we just had to get on with it. We went ahead and spent money we did not yet — and might not ever — have.
We would ask for forgiveness, not permission. It was not a comfortable place to be. Coming from a venture capital background, Kate set up a team that made bold choices to invest in a range of vaccine technologies, understanding that more than one vaccine would be needed, and not all attempts would succeed. However there was no mechanism to fund global trials so we had to open separate conversations about those. In January, February and March, my colleagues and I were out on a financial and reputational limb.
But by April there was widespread recognition that this was an urgent priority. Funding cycles were compressed, cutting years out of the development process. The usual amounts of money were also hugely increased. For once, we could focus on the research rather than the fund-raising. The risk was to those of us working on the vaccine, that we would have wasted our time, efforts and money.
So for example, usually we would not start work on the design of a clinical trial until we had completed all the animal trials. That way, if the animal trials showed the vaccine was not safe, or not effective, we would not have wasted time preparing clinical trials that could not go ahead. This time, we did all the clinical trial preparation while the animal trials were still going on.
That way, it was within days of receiving the safety data from our animal trials that we were putting the vaccine into the arms of our first volunteers. Similarly millions of doses of vaccine were manufactured before we had data showing that the vaccine worked.
We were able to go fast in not because we cut corners or took risks with our product. We did every single thing that needed to be done. We did not miss any steps. Nor was any individual task — filling a vial, vaccinating a volunteer, analysing data — done with less than the usual care and attention.
We went faster because, when we had to, it turned out we could. Or the occasions when we celebrated. I tend to disappoint them. Though there was plenty of drama there was not one big breakthrough moment, in a bath or under an apple tree. There were, rather, lots and lots and lots of small moments. Detail after detail that we had to get completely right, item after item to be ticked off the list, problem after problem that had to be solved.
There was no time, and, since we were locked down, no possibility of coming within two metres of each other, let alone throwing a party. Cath remembers some socially distanced slices of cake. I remember taking a few sips of champagne from a coffee mug, whilst looking at my exhausted colleagues. Having said all of that, I can pick out a small sample of momentous days; and some key challenges. We have a lovely photo of the view down the microscope.
It looked like a tiny heart. There was a fuzzy cloud right in the centre of it — our first batch of vaccine. Cath Green says this was the moment she believed we might be able to pull this off. Up until then we had an idea. The clinical trials would show whether the vaccine would work. But even assuming it did, it would remain just an interesting piece of academic research unless we found a way to make it at scale. It is also about how much you can make, how easily you can get it to people, and then, ultimately, how many people are willing to receive it.
On the 23 rd of April we vaccinated our first human volunteers. By this point we had been locked down for a month. At the time it felt like an enormous milestone. Looking back it was barely the beginning. On the 30 th of April the partnership between Oxford University and the global biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca was announced.
We already had a manufacturing process that could produce millions of doses. But the logistics of actually making them, and then distributing them across the world, were daunting. This deal was transformative. AstraZeneca brought manufacturing and distribution capabilities well beyond the scope of a university-led project; they were thinking big from the start; they wanted to work alongside us rather than completely take over which was very unusual; and crucially they agreed to supply the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis for the course of the pandemic , and to low-income countries in perpetuity.
The team felt strongly that this was the right approach. On the 23rd of November after much impatient waiting, we finally announced the results of the clinical trials that had started seven months earlier. Thanks to Teresa Lambe and her team of immunologists we knew that our vaccine was producing a good immune response. But how protective against infection was that immune response? The numbers infected in each group would tell us whether the vaccine was protecting those who received it.
Much was made at the time of the complicated results. With perspective, we can see what was important: we had a vaccine that was very safe and highly effective against an unbearably awful disease. There followed more dizzying weeks, for the team and for the country.
The Pfizer vaccine slowly began to be rolled out for healthcare workers and the most vulnerable members of society. Case numbers soared. Tighter and tighter government-mandated restrictions were being announced almost daily.
There was a last-minute admission that we would not, after all, be able to go ahead with plans to relax restrictions over Christmas. Rollout could start in the New Year. And I have talked about the work that had come before. The flipside is that, if we had been better prepared , we could have gone faster. We had seen it coming, we had started preparing, but we were not fully prepared.
Requests for funding had been turned down. The focus had been on influenza or a more localised outbreak of a novel disease, and in neither case were preparations complete. So in we were using several techniques we had never tried before. Some of them worked first time, but some failed.
And even though we usually had an old method as a slower back-up, each failure was devastating. By the time we were designing new versions of our vaccine to deal with the various Greek alphabet variants at the start of , we had a much improved, faster method to follow.
But that had taken time, and funding, and practice. The sheer logistics of doing something at this pace and this scale were a big challenge. We kept making plans — but things kept getting more urgent, or our knowledge expanded, and we would have to make a new plan. There were continual problems getting the vaccine for the trials safely to all the right places. Later we would have vans lining up outside the facility every evening to distribute around the UK.
Then so much work went into getting doses to international trial sites with all the labels and approvals in place. Once in desperation we even chartered a private jet. The vaccine was in Italy, the volunteers were in the UK, and all flights had been cancelled. One thing we were definitely unprepared for was this: how do you fight a pandemic, when you are in a pandemic? At times we had no PPE.
No thermometers. No needles. But it was hard to implement social distancing in the clinical trial centre. We had to borrow facilities at other hospitals and then build our own temporary buildings. When the schools closed, we scrambled to get letters confirming that team members were key workers so that their children could continue to go to school. When the campus catering facilities closed, things got really desperate.
No one had time to join the long queues outside supermarkets so we fed ourselves from the vending machines until we ran out of loose change. We were all hugely thankful to the group of philanthropists who decided to pay for healthy meals to be sent in to sustain us. Another somewhat unexpected challenge was getting the communication right. So while everyone was stepping up to the task of their life, we were also on a steep and sometimes scary learning curve.
Our aim is always to provide clear communication, including explanations for why we sometimes do not have all the answers. We are trying to promote scientific understanding, not ourselves, which is often misunderstood in the age of TikTok celebrities. Sometimes journalists help us to manage the tensions and communicate these often complex issues. Like us, most are doing their best in difficult circumstances. At times though we are frustrated at the way information gets distorted or sensationalised in the reporting.
We had a stark awakening to the negative power of social media. Three days after we vaccinated our first two volunteers, a false report that one of them had died went viral. The report itself was not convincing, but part of the lesson was that many people only read the headline, and others then reported it. Even in reputable publications headlines are sometimes written to catch attention rather than to accurately convey the less sensational content.
The problems become amplified when others re-report the headlines rather than studying the facts. Reality is complex. Knowledge gets built up over time as more data is gathered. Accurate communication takes time, and care. Take the situation in the spring of when reports started to appear of very rare but serious adverse events after vaccination: the formation of blood clots at the same time as a very low platelet count.
Tens of thousands of people had been vaccinated in clinical trials but this problem was so rare it could only be detected after tens of millions had been vaccinated. Expert clinicians worked to understand the problem, enable those affected to be identified quickly, and determine the best treatment. The risk was still tiny, and much, much lower than the risk from getting a blood clot from Covid, but since there were alternative vaccines available this led to recommendations to use our vaccine only in older age groups.
We now have data showing that the risk differs in different parts of the world, and is very low in Southern Europe and non-European populations. The communication of this issue has not been straightforward. Communication about risk is notoriously difficult, and with very rare events it takes time to gather and analyse data.
We have also not done well in communicating about the safety and benefits of vaccinating pregnant women. A year ago, when vaccines were first being rolled out, vaccinating pregnant women was not universally recommended. This is the usual approach with new drugs or vaccines: we wait for special studies in animals, vaccinating before or just after conception, and waiting for the offspring to be born.
Then we do a study in pregnant women. When enough people have become positive for the coronavirus, the statisticians will look at which groups those people are in, to find out whether they are in the group that had the coronavirus vaccine, or whether all positive cases are in the group that had the meningitis vaccine. It makes vaccine testing more difficult though, because we need a small number of people to become infected — and it is really a very small number — in order to know that the vaccine is actually working.
The other part is having enough vaccine ready to use. So, in parallel with the clinical trials what we need to do is start preparing to manufacture large amounts of the vaccine. But we need to go to a much bigger scale. So those companies need to have new equipment, they need to have their staff trained in using new protocols and new quality control assessments. We need to make enough vaccine for the world. And there are discussions going on about mechanisms for ensuring fair access to all the vaccines that work at a global level, which we will need to engage with.
So, I think that it probably is likely that if somebody has been infected, they will be able to be re-infected in the future. We could be in a situation, which would be very fortunate, where we could find that the vaccine-induced immunity lasts a lot longer than the infection-induced immunity. SG: Well, it is an impossible question. SG: There are some mutations going on but not at a level that will affect our ability to vaccinate against it.
The serum antibodies worked against all of them, because the differences are really quite minor. We need to work out which vaccines are going to work to stop that and to really get this under control. SG: That seems to be largely to do with the level of expression of the receptor that the virus uses to get into cells.
We know that in children who have mild infections, they have quite low levels of ACE2 receptor expression in the respiratory tract. There are lots and lots of variables to be taken into account. Skip to main content. An interview with Sarah Gilbert. An interview with Prof.
A British vaccinologist and Professor of Vaccinology at Oxford University, the year-old mother of triplets previously led the development and testing of a universal flu vaccine. Her work on the Covid vaccine earned her a spot on The Times' 'Science Power List' in May but she remained humble, telling the Independent: 'I'm trained for it — I'm the mother of triplets.
If you get four hours a night with triplets, you're doing very well. I've been through this. In heartwarming scenes this afternoon, Dame Sarah sat front centre appeared overcome with emotion as the crowd stood and applauded her incredible feat. An opening day on Centre Court with a difference A special moment as we say thank you to those who have played such an important role in the response to COVID Wimbledon pic.
Ms Ingram-Moore smiled widely and waved as her father's name received cheers. Announcers paid tribute to the 'important work' done by keyworkers before the first game on Centre Court between defending champion Novak Djokovic and year-old Jack Draper from the UK. The competition's chief executive, Sally Bolton, has said there will be a 'familiar feel' at the championship following a 'level of uncertainty' caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms Bolton said she was feeling 'excitement' that the famous tennis tournament was starting, adding that 'we can talk about tennis and not talk about Covid'. She has more than 25 years experience in the field and has previously led the development and testing of a universal flu vaccine, which underwent clinical trials in Professor Gilbert is not just busy at work, she's got her hands full at home too, being the mother of triplets. She later took roles in Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire before joining the lab of Irish vaccinologist Adrian Hill, where she carried out research into malaria.
The pair are both involved in Oxford University spin-off biotech firm Vaccitech. She was made Professor at the Oxford-based Jenner Trust in and started work on research for a universal flu vaccine, which underwent clinical trials in She has had to juggle the intense work with her home life, including being a mother to triplets - all of who are now at university.
Earlier this year, Professor Gilbert told the Independent: 'I'm trained for it — I'm the mother of triplets. Speaking as the SW19 gates opened to fans for the first time in two years, she said the degree of 'trepidation' felt while organising Wimbledon had been no different to any other year. Monday sees tennis fans return to the internationally renowned courts, with multiple changes to ensure that the event remains Covid-secure.
Fans will have to present evidence of either double-jab status or negative lateral flow tests upon arrival at the grounds. Multiple hand sanitiser stations have been installed and guests are being asked to wear face coverings when walking around, although these can be removed while watching the matches. Fans were pictured huddled under umbrellas as they queued for entry in the drizzle, and some wore Union flag facemasks. Speaking at a virtual press conference ahead of the first matches, Ms Bolton said extra effort had been made to deliver a 'familiar feel' to the championship.
Wet weather threatened to put a dampener on the tournament's opening day, with the Met Office putting a yellow weather warning for rain and thunderstorms in place across parts of southern England. But investment in roofs over Centre Court and Court 1 in recent years means the unpredictable weather is less likely to affect the schedule. The Met Office said weather conditions were expected to steadily improve throughout the week despite the 'drab and murky' start.
Ms Bolton added that the investment, which occurred before the start of the pandemic, stood organisers 'in good stead' and that both courts were considered to be outdoor venues, even when the roofs were closed. Wimbledon fans face a washout in the first week of the tennis championship as torrential downpours are set to batter the UK causing travel chaos and flooding across the country.
The return of the tournament, which was cancelled last year because of coronavirus, comes as ticket holders are told they can watch tomorrow's England vs Germany Euro match on their phones as long as cheering is kept to a minimum, despite concerns seats will be empty at kick-off. Eager tennis fans queued early this morning for the start of the first socially distanced and covid-controlled Wimbledon. More than four hours before the opening match on Centre Court long lines snaked towards the gates of the All England Club.
Even grey, leaden skies could not dampen the enthusiasm of those able to get one of the tickets. Queues started to form 90 minutes before the gates opened at 10am. Meanwhile, the Met Office has issued a yellow weather warning for large parts of the south of England that are at risk of thundery storms in the coming week.
The warning, which means 'be prepared', was brought in last night as the Met Office has said 'scattered torrential thundery downpours may bring some impacts, such as flooded roads'. Tennis stars face rain breaks with two inches of rain in the south east this week, three inches in the south west and an inch in the Midlands.
Meanwhile the north is expected to remain dry. Queues began forming outside the Wimbledon Grounds 90 minutes before the gates opened at 10am. Fun-loving fans donned strawberry hats in tribute to the favoured snack of the tournament - strawberries and cream.
Historically, all Wimbledon matches have been postponed due to rain but the investment in roofs over Centre Court and Court 1 in recent years means the unpredictability of the British weather is less likely to affect the schedule - although the experience of sitting courtside with strawberries and cream in hand may not be quite the same. Southern areas will bear the brunt of the rain storms for the rest of the week, including on Tuesday when England go head-to-head with Germany at Wembley.
The resale of tickets inside the Wimbledon grounds is banned this year amid coronavirus, meaning anyone sneaking out to watch the game will not be able to return their tickets. A source familiar with the Club's protocol told the Telegraph stewards have not been briefed against allowing guests to watch the football on their phones.
Hundreds of people queued for entry into Wimbledon as officials directed cars and checked PCR test results. Three tennis fans shelter under umbrellas as they wait for matches to begin. Some matches have been delayed due to the rain. The Duke of Kent is pictured in the Royal Box at Wimbledon as he takes his seat ahead of the first day of matches.
Crowds flooded into the grounds on Monday as the first day of Wimbledon began. Ticketholders wore masks as they queued to get into the grounds of the tennis tournament this morning. Historically, all matches have been postponed due to rain but the investment in roofs over Centre Court and Court 1 in recent years means the unpredictability of the British weather is less likely to affect the schedule. Meanwhile, as doors to the tournament ground opened at 10am each fan has to prove they have been vaccinated or have a negative PCR test as a condition of entry.
Stewards walked along the line of fans checking they had met the entry requirements before the gates were opened. Once inside other stewards double checked covid status before fans rushed to take their seat. Mary Blaine, 56, from Erith in Kent, said she didn't mind the inconvenience of having to prove she had been double jabbed.
I am sure there will be a great atmosphere on the courts. We will just be so glad that the championship is back. Her husband Adrian, 60, added: We're back at Wimbledon, what more needs to be said. Josh Howells and his eight-year-old son were at the front of the queue. He said: 'We wee not sure what the queues would be like, so we got here early. It's is all very well organised. We knew there would be lots of checks before getting in. Many of the fans were hoping to see Andy Murray on what is tipped to be his last Wimbledon as the players are driven to the Championship by coach from a central London hotel this morning.
Last year's finals were cancelled and this year's matches will have a capacity of 21, The men's and women's finals will have full capacity of 15, on Centre Court. As the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, two women in different parts of Oxford celebrated the dawn of with little idea of what lay ahead.
The next day, before shutting her laptop to return to the jigsaw puzzle she was completing with her husband and grown-up triplets, Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the city's university, noticed that four cases of a 'pneumonia of unknown cause' had been reported in Wuhan, China.
Meanwhile, her colleague, Cath Green, who runs the university's Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility which makes vaccines, had hosted a New Year's Eve party after recently separating from her husband. There had been dancing, cocktails, fizzy wine and chocolate cake — but no mention of the virus that would come to haunt the headlines.
However, over the coming weeks and months as Covid took over the world, these two women found themselves on the front line of the race for a vaccine to halt the pandemic. Their success in creating the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine — now in millions of arms worldwide — has just earned them recognition in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. Now, in a compelling new book, Vaxxers, they tell the breathtaking story and relive the high-stakes drama as they strove to produce a vaccine in months — something that normally would have taken years.
Their achievement was built on decades of painstaking preparation, teamwork and considerable personal sacrifice. Above all, it is a story of ordinary people coming together in extraordinary times to attempt an extraordinary thing. It has been described as 'one of the most epic and pioneering moments in human history, comparable to the race to put a man on the Moon, the discovery of DNA or the first ascent of Everest'.
In their own words, here is their story. Sarah Gilbert. Scientific discovery on this scale is very rarely a eureka moment for a lone genius. It definitely was not in this case. It was a collaborative effort by an international network of thousands of heroes — dedicated scientists in Oxford and across four continents, but also clinicians, regulators, manufacturers and the brave volunteer citizens who offered up their arms for us.
Cath and I were just two scientists among many in the right place at the right time to fight back. We don't have cleaners, or drivers, or nannies, and like everyone else we had other things going on in our lives. And though there was plenty of drama, there was not one big breakthrough moment — in a bath or under an apple tree or late at night in a silent, empty lab — but lots and lots and lots of small moments.
There were days when we swore or cried with frustration and exhaustion. We lost sleep and gained weight. Over the coming weeks and months as Covid took over the world, Sarah Gilbert pictured and Cath Green found themselves on the front line of the race for a vaccine to halt the pandemic. There were days when we met a prince, or a prime minister, and other days when it seemed we had to both save the world and get the central heating fixed.
Some days we drank champagne, others we struggled to find anything to eat for lunch. There were days when we seemed to be battling against our employer, or the media, or a swarm of wasps in a wall in the house, as well as the virus. Most days it felt like our big chance to make a positive impact on global health. Occasionally it felt like a heavy burden to bear. But we kept going, as did many others who worked alongside us, for long days, through weekends and bank holidays, until our vision of a vaccine for the world was finally realised.
On Friday, January 3, , I was checking regularly for updates on this unusual new disease in China, in between a cold but sunny walk through the Oxfordshire countryside, a pub lunch and making dinner to suit each family member's different tastes. A post that day reported 44 cases with 11 people critically ill, and that close contacts of those infected were being monitored. It was still unclear what was causing it, but it was described as 'SARS-like'.
If that was true, I knew we could be in trouble. SARS is a coronavirus which first caused serious outbreaks in Asia in Both led to hundreds of deaths. On January 20, Sarah emailed me asking to 'discuss a couple of things', writes Cath Green. Confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in China had risen to and human-to-human transmission had been confirmed. Back in the office three days later, I discussed it with my colleague, Tess Lambe. By Friday it had been confirmed as a novel coronavirus, and with reports of the first death in China, we decided that as soon as we could get hold of its genetic sequence, we would start to make a vaccine against it.
It was still, at this stage, an academic exercise. At best, we might never need the vaccine. For years, those of us working in the field had expected something like this — an unknown 'Disease X' that could cause a pandemic. Many have since asked: 'Why did we not see this coming? But we had been unable to persuade anyone to spend the money that we needed. Since , I had been working on vaccines against flu and MERS using an adenovirus — a virus that causes the common cold — as a vehicle to deliver into the human body whatever cargo is loaded on to it by scientists.
We can remove an adenovirus gene and replace it with one which, once it gets into human cells, will trigger the immune system to fight a specific disease. This technology can be used to make vaccines against many different diseases — you just need to insert the right piece of genetic code to trigger the immune system.
A great advantage of this approach is that we already know how to manufacture it, store it and what dose to give. It reduces development time and, crucially, the cost. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations CEPI was set up in to fund vaccines against known dangerous viruses, and in I submitted a proposal to use adenovirus technology against what the World Health Organisation had termed 'Disease X' — a future, hypothetical disease.
But our application for funding was unsuccessful. Apparently, the reviewers were not convinced these vaccines could be produced quickly enough in the event of an outbreak. That was disappointing, and the cause of much regret once Disease X appeared not long afterwards. At least we had planned how to go quickly, though, even if we hadn't got to test those plans.
Cath Green. On January 20, Sarah emailed me asking to 'discuss a couple of things'. I replied the next day and we met in her office. I am not a same-day email-replier, an aspect of my personality that has been severely tested this past year. By March, if Sarah emailed I would be replying within 20 minutes.
Sarah's familiar 'Keep Calm and Develop Vaccines' mug was on her desk, and it seems strange looking back now, but the meeting was relaxed. Neither of us had yet registered how much of an impact this virus, and this work, was going to have on our lives. Sarah set out the situation. Would my Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility be able to start making the materials for a vaccine against this new virus immediately?
There was not yet any funding. Equally, the vaccine might not be needed. We were also working on other projects which would have to be delayed. I had to balance the risk to our finances with the fact that not going as fast as possible would be something to regret if the spread of the virus continued to escalate. Sarah and her colleague Tess Lambe knew that if they wanted to go quickly, they had only one shot.
Creating a vaccine is a bit like a dressmaker making a couture garment. Before cutting it in expensive material, you will make several versions in a cheap fabric to check the fit. Once perfect, you make the catwalk version. With vaccines, several versions might be created before making the clinical batch that goes into arms. However, this takes at least three years — and that's just to get ml or so of what is called starting material, the basis from which all of the vaccine is then made.
Sarah had come up with a rapid method which involved doing as much work as possible in advance of knowing the genetic sequence of a pathogen, so that once we knew the relevant gene we could get from that point to a working vaccine as quickly as possible.
Think of it as like a baker who sells personalised cakes iced with personalised messages, such as 'Happy 50th birthday Joe'. If she bakes a batch of cakes, she can save time dealing with a shop customer by just having to pick up her piping bag and adding the customised message while they wait. But since we could not be sure this rapid method would work, as back-up we also started using the more traditional, slower technique in a separate lab.
To continue the baking analogy, this was like making the cake ie the starting material for the vaccine from scratch for each customer — only after having discovered the new pathogen and established its genetic code. On Saturday, January 25, we were delivered what looked like an empty test-tube in a Jiffy bag. It contained billion dehydrated strands of the DNA sequence coding for the new coronavirus's spike protein — the part we want to make an immune response against.
Akin to landing a person on the Moon, the race to invent a brand new vaccine to tackle the global pandemic was no easy task. Professor Gilbert told 7. Now her biggest concern is vaccine hesitancy because "we can't hide from the virus anymore".
That's not going to be possible with the versions that we have spreading now. We have to be prepared to meet it and to deal with it and that means vaccination. Under normal circumstances, making a vaccine can take up to 10 to 15 years, but Professor Gilbert's team created the AstraZeneca vaccine within a year.
Professor Gilbert said there were two key reasons they were able to achieve this in record time. This time we were overlapping those processes," she said. But for younger people, we normally see good maintenance of immune responses. Professor Gilbert said it was still too early for her team to reflect on its accomplishment. There's a lot of Africa that hasn't received any vaccine yet, so the job's certainly not done.
In terms of looking forward, Professor Gilbert hopes we will be better prepared for any future pandemics.
Dame Sarah Catherine Gilbert DBE is a British vaccinologist who is a Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford and co-founder of Vaccitech. Gilbert specialises in the development of vaccines against influenza and emerging viral. Future pandemics could be more lethal than the current Covid crisis, one of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has warned. Prof Dame. Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert says medical science has transformed ambitions for new vaccines.