Sarah Gilbert, the researcher leading the Covid-19 vaccine race

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When Sarah Gilbert heard of a mysterious new respiratory infection that was spreading in China in early January, she immediately wondered if it was the dreaded disease X – a previously unknown pathogen that would cause catastrophic pandemic.

The professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University had prepared for such an important event. His lab had developed technology to create vaccines against virulent viruses. As soon as Chinese scientists released the genetic details of the new coronavirus – providing a target for vaccine development – she moved forward at full speed.

This week, Oxford published encouraging results from the first phase of testing of its ChAdOx1 vaccine, showing that it generated antibodies and immune cells to recognize and kill the Sars-Cov-2 virus responsible for Covid-19.

“It is truly amazing that within 100 days of learning the genetic sequence of the virus, Sarah and her team were able to start a clinical trial of the vaccine,” says John Bell, senior professor of medicine at Oxford. “She’s a great scientist. She knew exactly what was needed and was absolutely effective in achieving it.

With 22 other potential vaccines also in clinical trials and more than 100 in early stages of research, the 300-strong Oxford team is competing. “The Oxford vaccine is the leader, but that doesn’t mean it will win in the end,” admits Sir John, adding that the world will need more Covid-19 vaccines.

So far, in terms of demand, Oxford is well ahead. Since the university made pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca its trading and manufacturing partner, the vaccine has won early orders for more than 2 billion doses worldwide – tested for safety and efficacy with tens of thousands of participants in the coming months.

Professor Gilbert, 58, has become the public face of the project – although, like many scientists, she is a reluctant celebrity. She speaks confidently about the project on occasional press conference calls, but interviews are rationed and largely avoid personal questions. “My family wants to keep their privacy to themselves,” she says firmly.

She is however willing to reveal a little of herself. “I was born in Kettering [Northamptonshire] and grew up there, leaving only for college, ”she says. “My mom was a schoolteacher and my dad was an office manager for Loake Bros. shoes.

After a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of East Anglia, she obtained a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Hull, followed by jobs in the biotechnology industry at the Brewing Industry Research Foundation, Leicester Biocentre and Delta. Biotechnology. In 1994, Professor Gilbert joined the Nuffield Department of Medicine in Oxford where she has worked ever since.

She gave birth to triplets prematurely in 1998. In a college article on work-life balance, she wrote: “Child care costs would have cost more than my total income as a postdoctoral researcher, so my partner had to sacrifice his own career to take care of our children.

The triplets are now following in their mother’s footsteps, all three studying biochemistry in college. They were also the first volunteers for the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial.

When Professor Gilbert started her career at Oxford, she focused on malaria, before moving on to flu shots. Having become a professor of vaccinology in 2010, she began to work on the approach that led to ChAdOx1. This uses a genetically engineered chimpanzee adenovirus – which causes mild cold-like symptoms in monkeys but does not normally infect humans – to transport pieces of a harmful virus into human cells, where they stimulate the immune system of the human body. recipient.

By the time Covid-19 emerged, Professor Gilbert was applying the technology to some of the nastiest viruses known to medicine, including Nipah, Lassa and Rift Valley fever. But, significantly, his lab had previously produced a vaccine against Middle East respiratory syndrome – a fatal disease caused by another coronavirus. This provided a model for the Covid-19 vaccine.

Professor Gilbert is hesitant to predict if and when ChAdOx1 will go beyond clinical trials to vaccinate large numbers against Covid-19. There are three elements of uncertainty, she says.

First, it is not known how long the trials will take to produce results. This will depend on how much of the virus is circulating in the places where the tests take place, including Brazil, South Africa and the United States. Next, AstraZeneca and its manufacturing partners need to organize large-scale production. Finally, regulators must decide whether the vaccine works well enough to be approved: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set a 50% efficacy threshold for Covid-19 vaccines.

If all goes well, the Oxford team say ChAdOx1 could be available by the end of the year to vaccinate the highest priority recipients, with supplies increasing rapidly in 2021.

While others take charge of manufacturing and regulation, Professor Gilbert continues to lead research at Oxford, ensuring that trials run smoothly and the team’s work is communicated quickly in scientific papers. .

At the same time, she is considering how to make vaccine research more efficient than was possible in January. “We are still thinking about disease X,” says Professor Gilbert. “If we had everything in place this time around, we could have been at least a month faster, which would have made a big difference.”

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