Opinions Tue, 28 Jul 2020

The mother of triplets who's trying to save the world from COVID-19

Even in a technologically advanced society like that of Britain, giving birth to triplets is an event, with a capital “E”.

If the mother to whom The Event happens is a career woman, it is almost certain that she would be prevailed upon by family and friends to say goodbye to her career and devote herself entirely to the care of the children. Okay, women can advance in their careers despite their biological obligations, right? Yes, but triplets? That's something else, isn't it?

It is to the immense advantage of humanity that when Sarah had her triplets, she didn't abandon the scientific career she had begun to carve for herself. Her partner, who must be a most noble character, volunteered to give up work and look after the children, while she continued with what he recognised as her immensely important work.

Humanity must be grateful to him that he saved his partner's career. For that mother of triplets is today closing in fast on the MOST IMPORTANT ACHIEVEMENT IMAGINABLE IN 2020 – namely the invention and manufacturing of a vaccine against Covid-19.

This is how Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology, Jenner Institute & Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine,

describes herself in her own words: “I am currently leading the development [of] a vaccine (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19) against SARS-CoV-2, working with OVG (Oxford Vaccine Group) and teams within the Jenner [Institute at Oxford University]. Optimisation of GMP [compliance with Good Manufacturing Practice applicable to the manufacture of sterile medicinal products] and scale-up activities are progressing in parallel with clinical trials, scheduled in Qtr2-3 2020 [Quarters 2-3 of 2020.”.

What? Yes: we are already in Quarter 3 of 2020, which means that with any luck, a vaccine – which most scientists acknowledge is the best way of immunising the world's population against Covid-19 – could be in the hands of the medical authorities of the world at any time now. And, remember, as you absorb that fact, that social norms very nearly disqualified the leader of the team that's fast approaching this feat, not only from being able to participate in the work, but also, (of course) from growing to be the main brains at its forefront.

Am I not over-hyping Prof Gilbert's work a wee bit? To be perfectly honest, I don't care if I am! The mere thought that we may soon be able to prevent, with a simple jab or through the oral route, a disease that has killed 649,000 people [at the time of writing] and stricken 16.3 million altogether, excites me to no end. This is SUPER-NOBEL PRIZE territory, if you ask me.

Indeed, were they in my gift, all the scientific prizes in the world would be combined together and awarded to Professor Gilbert and her team. If they succeed, that is.

Such a mind-blowing eventuality would teach the scientists of the world to devote themselves wholly to saving mankind, when the necessity arrives, and not to make their services so easily available to the industries and governments that conceive of evil designs upon our planet and its flora and fauna.

Evil designs are plotted for profit, or for power over others. And the world's best scientists, many of whom have been endowed with brains of genius by Nature, should be able to detect when enterprises in which they are called upon to participate, fall into the evil category.

But to come back to Prof Sarah Gilbert: she has “been making and testing vaccines designed to induce T cell responses, for over ten years, chiefly using antigens from malaria and influenza. Several of the vaccines developed in her laboratory, have progressed into clinical trials,” according to the website of her Institute.

Prof Gilbert has also been involved in the search for an all-conquering Ebola vaccine; she produced “A Monovalent Chimpanzee Adenovirus Ebola Vaccine — Preliminary Report” in 2015. Another of her projects was entitled: “Efficacy assessment of an MVA vectored Rift Valley Fever vaccine in Lambs.”

But it is that reference to malaria that tickled me no end: dare we hope that one day soon, we might say a final goodbye to that horrendous “Sword of Damocles” that hangs over the head of every baby born in the tropics? An anti-malaria vaccine! Wow! Prof Gilbert, I wish you a very long life! For a occasionally in the past, hopes have been raised about efforts aimed at developing an anti-malaria vaccine – only to vanish into thin air later. That's the nature of scientific development, I am afraid.

Sarah Catherine Gilbert was born in England in April 1962

and attended Kettering High School, where she realised that she wanted to work in medicine. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree [First Class] in Biological Sciences, from the University of East Anglia, and moved to the University of Hull for her doctoral degree. Her interest then lay in an investigation of “the genetics and biochemistry of the yeast Rhodosporidium toruloides.”

Now Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford and co-founder of an enterprise called “Vaccitech”, she specialises in the development of vaccines against influenza and emerging viral pathogens. She is widely experienced in the development and manufacture of vaccines, having led the development and testing of the universal flu vaccine, which underwent clinical trials in 2011. In April 2020, she affirmed that “with more funding”, she could deliver a COVID-19 vaccine by September 2020.

As with her earlier work, the COVID-19 vaccine makes use of an “adenoviral vector,” which stimulates an immune response against the coronavirus spike protein. Plans were announced to start animal studies of the vaccine in March 2020, and recruitment began of 510 human participants for a phase I/II trial on 27 March 2020. Over 4,000 participants are already enrolled into the clinical trial and enrolment of an additional 10, 000 participants is planned.

According to a BBC Radio 4 profile of Prof Sarah Gilbert, her three children have volunteered to be members of the people on whom the vaccine is being trialled.
Columnist: Cameron Duodu