Sarah Gilbert on how her team is making the Oxford coronavirus vaccine – and why we should be optimistic
In April, Sarah Gilbert’s three children, 21-year-old triplets all studying biochemistry, decided to take part in a trial for an experimental vaccine against Covid-19.
It was their mother’s vaccine—she leads the University of Oxford team that developed it—but there wasn’t a big family talk. “We didn’t really discuss it as I wasn’t home much at the time,” Gilbert told me recently. She’d been working around the clock, as one does while trying to end a pandemic, and at any rate wasn’t worried for her kids. “We know the adverse event profile and we know the dose to use, because we’ve done this so many times before,” she says. “Obviously we’re doing safety testing, but we’re not concerned.”
With safety low on her list of worries (her triplets are fine), Gilbert is focused on quickly determining how effective the vaccine will be and how it will be made. In April, Oxford struck a deal with British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca Plc to spearhead global manufacturing and distribution and help run more trials around the world. AstraZeneca has agreed to sell the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis during the crisis if it proves effective and has lined up deals with multiple manufacturers to produce more than 2 billion doses.
At the end of April, crunching a process that normally takes about five years into less than four months, Gilbert and her colleagues at Oxford’s Jenner Institute started a human trial on 1,100 people. When Gilbert testified before a parliamentary committee in early July, one member compared her effort to going into a shed and coming out with a jet engine. Gilbert’s team has leapfrogged other vaccine contenders to the point where it will likely finish vaccinating subjects in its big 10,000-person efficacy trial before other candidates even start testing on that scale, Kate Bingham, chair of the U.K. government’s Vaccine Taskforce, told the parliamentary committee in early July. “She’s well ahead of the world,” Bingham said. “It’s the most advanced vaccine anywhere.”
Gilbert has voiced remarkable confidence in her chances, saying the Oxford vaccine has an 80% probability of being effective in stopping people who are exposed to the novel coronavirus from developing Covid-19. She has said she could know by September. Asked by MPs in early July whether the world would have to struggle through the winter without a vaccine, Gilbert said, “I hope we can improve on those timelines and come to your rescue.”
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