Earlier this week, there was positive news on the Oxford vaccine candidate, one of a clutch of frontrunner candidates to protect the world from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that had, until Friday (July 24) morning, infected nearly 15.5 million people and killed over 630,000 worldwide.
Leading its development is a British scientist who plays the oboe, cycles to work, and is the mother of triplets. Dr Sarah Gilbert was famous in the scientific community as a brilliant vaccinologist; with the success in early trials, she — and ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, the vaccine candidate her team is working on — has been spotlighted as never before.
Gilbert and co-authors published the results of the early trials in the medical journal, The Lancet, on July 20, titled “Safety and immunogenicity of the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine against SARS-CoV-2: a preliminary report of a phase 1/2, single-blind, randomised controlled trial”. They wrote: “ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 showed an acceptable safety profile, and homologous boosting increased antibody responses.” Which means that the vaccine candidate had induced an immune response (which is what vaccines are supposed to do), and was safe for people.
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What is Dr Gilbert’s work in the field of vaccine development?
Dr Gilbert is one of the leading vaccinologists in the world. She is professor of vaccinology at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, a prestigious vaccine research centre, and one of the two founders of its spin-out company, Vaccitech, which develops immunotherapy products to treat and prevent infectious disease and cancer.
For more than 15 years, Dr Gilbert has been making and testing vaccines that trigger T cells — a type of white blood cells — to respond to antigens from malaria, influenza, and tuberculosis, among others.
Her work also includes developing vaccines for influenza and emerging diseases such as Lassa, Nipah, CCHF, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). MERS, which appeared in 2014, too, is caused by a coronavirus. “A vaccine against MERS has been tested in clinical trials in the UK, and is now in trials in Saudi Arabia, where the virus is endemic,” says Gilbert’s page on the Jenner Institute website.
The vaccine for MERS involved using the adenovirus (which causes common colds) from a chimpanzee embedded with the genetic material of the MERS virus. For the Covid-19 vaccine, the Oxford scientists used the adenovirus of a chimpanzee embedded with the genetic material from the spike protein, which the coronavirus uses to pierce the cell. In tests till now, bodies of participants have responded as if they were infected with the coronavirus.
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What is known about the acclaimed scientist’s life away from her work?
Dr Gilbert has not given many interviews since the publication of the results of the early phase trials. Earlier profiles of the scientist in the UK media have said that as a child in Northamptonshire’s Kettering High School for Girls, she was quiet, polite, and studious, getting a lot of ‘A’s in studies.
Gilbert belongs to a family of musicians, and her mother, Hazel, was part of the town’s operatic society. By the age of 17, however, Gilbert was sure that she wanted to be a medical researcher. After obtaining a degree in biology at the University of East Anglia and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Hull, Dr Gilbert worked at a number of biotechnology companies, among them Delta, where she learnt about making medicines.
Profiles on Prof Gilbert have noted that she became a vaccine specialist rather by accident. In 1994, when she entered Oxford University to join Professor Adrian Hill’s lab in a senior postdoc position, it was to work on human genetics. “That highlighted the role of a particular type of immune response in protection against malaria, and so the next thing to move on to was to make a vaccine that would work through that type of immune response — and that’s how I got into vaccines,” she told UK’s The Telegraph newspaper in an interview.
By 2007, Dr Gilbert, who had become a reader at Oxford University three years previously, had won a project grant from the Wellcome Trust, and had begun work on an influenza vaccine. She has developed two vaccines for the disease so far, and has said that her ultimate aim is to be able to develop her team of scientists to be the leaders in vaccine research in the world.
Many people are fascinated with Dr Gilbert’s success in balancing the extra demands that women with a career in science face.
According to UNESCO, women make up less than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers. In science, technology, engineering and mathematics, women also “publish less, are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers”.
On the website of the Nuffeld Department of Medicine (of which Jenner Institute, where she works, is a part), Dr Gilbert has been quoted as saying: “Work life balance is very difficult, and impossible to manage unless you have good support. Because I had triplets in 1998, nursery fees would have cost more than my entire income as a post-doctoral scientist, so my partner has had to sacrifice his own career in order to look after our children.”
She described how 18 weeks of paid maternity leave with three premature babies to care for and work to be completed, was tough: “If there is a three-year grant and a woman wants a year-long maternity leave, it can disrupt the progress of the project. The situation becomes worse if more than one person is away simultaneously.”
Dr Gilbert’s advice to women: “One of the good things about being a scientist is that the hours are not fixed, so there is a fair amount of flexibility for working mothers. Having said that, there are also times when things (such as overseas conferences and important meetings) are fixed and you have to make sacrifices. It is exceptionally hard work. It’s important to plan ahead, and make sure you have people who are willing to cover for you at home while you work. That might be your partner or relatives, or you may be able to buy in help.”
Her own children “seem to have survived unscathed, but none of them wants to be scientists”, she said.
The big question: Will there be a coronavirus vaccine this year?
Dr Gilbert is cautiously hopeful. In an interview to the BBC, she said, “Nobody can be absolutely sure that it is possible. That’s why we have to do trials. I think the prospects are very good but it is not completely certain.”
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