Dame Sarah Gilbert, 60, is professor of vaccinology at Oxford’s Jenner Institute and co-author, with Catherine Green, head of the University of Oxford’s clinical biomanufacturing facility, of Vaxxers – a gripping narrative about the development of a highly accessible and enlightening AstraZeneca vaccine without compromising knowledge. She lives in Oxford with her husband and grown triplets.
Another wave of Covid-19 is reportedly on its way. To what extent can you anticipate what will be done and prepare for the next virus?
Anticipating what the virus will do next is the task of those who carry out surveillance in the field of epidemiology. But if the new sequence is considered to be dominant, our problem is that creating a new version of the vaccine takes time and must be tested and approved. What happens, as we go through wave after wave, is that the virus is going too fast. Regulators can’t approve vaccines unless they can see clinical data, so you have to increase production to produce vaccines in large quantities. Developers still use the original vaccine, which provides good protection against the disease.
In your book, you address the fear, shared by some, that vaccines are being produced too quickly.
We are moving from vaccine production to licensing as quickly as possible. But every single thing we normally do when developing a vaccine has been completed, it’s just that we’re working really hard to stop all the delays in the process. This is only possible because there is one project in the world that everyone cares about and regulators can remove obstacles in the process.
The vaccine was presented in the media as a competition between producers.
When we started, no one was sure what would work; it is important to have as many options in development as possible. We have several vaccines that work, which is great. Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca were licensed for emergency use early, but there are still shortages in vaccine production.
Your book is very convincing vaccine doubters. I wonder if you agree that the psychology behind vaccine rejection may be in part a reaction to the months being told how to live, or not to live – and being a desire to regain control?
Maybe there’s something in it. In some countries, people don’t want to be vaccinated because their government recommends it and they don’t trust their government. I don’t think that’s a feature in the UK because, whatever people think about the government, they acknowledge input from the NHS. But there is a lot of skepticism among young people because they receive misinformation, sometimes through friends whose opinions they trust.
Is there a risk that Covid-19, instead of becoming more infectious and less deadly, might return as a more severe variant?
The truth is we don’t know where Covid-19 will go next. It can continue to get milder or it can become an even more severe disease.
Are we relying too much on vaccine efficacy in the UK and being careless about not wearing face masks anymore? Are you still wearing the mask?
I have more or less quit. I have about a year to always follow the guidance. But lately there has been no direction. I have traveled with a tube without a mask. I caught Covid, for the first time, about 10 days ago. It was like having the flu which was unpleasant and didn’t worry me. It only lasted a few days and I’m fine again.
To what extent has triplets a good preparation for the stamina you need professionally?
If you’ve ever had triplets, you realize that when you’re short and you have to do something, you can. People often do more than they expect of themselves – when there is a need to find the strength and energy to get the job done.
What was your most stressful moment?
Ironically, when we got the efficacy results in November 2020, it was complicated because there were different levels of efficacy across different parts of the trial. Everyone had worked hard for months and was very tired. Those who led the project had to undergo quite a grueling media interview. I did two hours of interviews in a row for 15 minutes without a break. It’s great to get the result but having to explain it is challenging.
Yet somehow you find the time to write a book.
I will do it whenever I have free time. In part, I was dictated to as I walked. I sometimes walk to work when the weather is nice because it gives my brain a rest and nothing can distract me.
It must be difficult for your family because you are consumed by work.
It’s hard to take time away from the work I do. I find it very difficult to turn it off. I have to get better at it. It was difficult for all of us – they did whatever they could to support me.
Oxford has made you a professor of vaccinology – it would be nice to have that recognition.
I already have a title from 2010 but now have an endowed seat. It’s very satisfying but none of the people who work for me have secure jobs, so I’m still raising funds to keep them in the post. I’m recruiting staff for my research group (on non-Covid vaccines and vaccine technology) and I’m very, very busy. We have lost many staff who are exhausted and no longer willing to accept short term jobs that are not well paid. Funding really needs to change although I don’t see the near-term prospects for better.
You have a Barbie doll named after you – what does it look like? And the baby penguins at the London Zoo?
I can show it to you [she produces a bespectacled Barbie with straight red hair, face mask dangling from her hand]. Can you see? He doesn’t look like him and – look – I really like his little mask. I’ve been visiting baby penguins and feeding them fish – it’s quite fun.
You have a mug that says “Keep calm and develop a vaccine”. Who gave it to you?
It was a gift from Secret Santa at work. The mug is now in the Science Museum in London. But I want to show you something else: my daughter embroidered this [a little sampler with the same message stitched in place].
I’ve read that you stay calm and garden when you can – how’s your garden?
Really, really bad. It has been taken over by weeds. This is a small garden and due to the busyness of my whole life I designed it low maintenance, but it required some intervention and recently had none.
Your book sees the new pandemic as a certainty for the future. What should we do differently next time?
We have to be better prepared in various areas. In vaccine development, there are viruses that we already know can cause disease outbreaks, but we don’t yet have a vaccine against them. We have to develop a vaccine now against all of that and prepare it so that if there is an outbreak, we have a vaccine against it.