Race against the virus: Dame Sarah Gilbert discusses her virology journey 

In late December 2019, a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases – now known to be the first human cases of Covid-19 – were reported in Wuhan, China. Due to quick action from Dame Sarah Gilbert and her team, work on the response to the new virus began. Members of the public had the opportunity to hear the story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at a free online event on October 6, 2021.

The event took place at the eighth Elizabeth Blackwell Annual Public Lecture entitled ‘Developing the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 Vaccine’.

In her talk, Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology and the Oxford Project Leader for ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine, went through the journey from the moment she first heard about a serious new illness affecting people in China, to her team designing a successful Covid-19 vaccine which would save the lives of millions of people. 

The event revealed how the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine – both cheaper and easier to distribute than some other vaccines – was developed and approved at a pace, while the public waited for science to find a way out of this major global health challenge.

Gilbert examined the reasons some people are hesitant to get vaccinated and discusses how people’s trust in science can be affected by how science is communicated. What can we learn from this pandemic and the ways it could help us plan for future health crises, as we look towards a post-Covid world?

Gilbert said: “Collaboration has been essential to the vaccine programme’s success, from the research groups that came together here in Oxford to our industrial partners AstraZeneca and other universities both within the UK and wider. Most important though, have been our trial volunteers.”  

Gilbert’s chief research interest is the development of viral-vectored vaccines that work by inducing strong and protective T and B cell responses. She works on vaccines for many different emerging pathogens, including influenza, Nipah, MERS, Lassa, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, and SARS-CoV-2. 

Working with colleagues in the Jenner Institute research labs, the Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility and Centre for Clinical Vaccinology and Tropical Medicine, all situated on the Old Road Campus in Oxford, she is able to take novel vaccines from design to clinical development, with a particular interest in the rapid transfer of vaccines into manufacturing and first in human trials.  

Vaxxers, the new book by Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green, is out now, giving the inside story of the Oxford vaccine and the race against the virus. 

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