The woman behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine
The University of Oxford and pharma major AstraZeneca on Monday said their vaccine against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) was up to 90% effective in late-stage clinical trials, bringing hope to millions across the world. This would not have been possible without professor Sarah Gilbert at the university’s Jenner Institute and her indispensable team.
This Irish-born virologist started her journey in 1994 with malaria vaccine research and has since then worked on shots against Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). According to the BBC, all these might not have materialised if Dr Gilbert had given up on science during her PhD days. But she decided not to give up on a career in science because it provided a stable source of income.
Gilbert has always preferred interdisciplinary research and she told the BBC that the lack of “diversity of thought” and “tunnel-like focus” during her doctoral years at the University of Hull almost caused her to give up on science. Coming from a family of musicians, Dr Gilbert juggled a plethora of careers, from working at brewing research to human health and now she and her team are about to embark on their most awaited challenge yet.
Sarah Gilbert was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire in April 1962, both her parents were not in STEM fields. She started working on vaccine research in 1994 with Adrian Hill, who is now the director of the Jenner Institute. Their very first collaborative effort was on the malaria vaccine and as mentioned by the Lancet, this helped hone her skills in creating recombinant viral vector vaccines, that could itself trigger positive responses from T-cells and not rely exclusively on antibody response, like the majority of vaccines at that time.
The Oxford Covid-19 vaccine’s foundation is built on the research work painstakingly put together by Gilbert and Hill over the years and which they successfully patented. Gilbert’s team was awarded a grant of £2.2 million from the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Research and the UK Research and Innovation in March 2020.
The Oxford vaccine, which is called AZD1222, is cheaper to make, can be conveniently stored at fridge temperature and is easier to transport. Its principal manufacturer is Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), which has promised to store half of what it produces for India.
Till date, 59,501,986 cases of the coronavirus disease have been registered, 1,401,567 individuals have succumbed to the infection and 41,146,393 people have recovered, according to Worldometers.