Sarah Gilbert: The woman behind the Oxford coronavirus vaccine
2020-08-03 14:49:48

The coronavirus vaccine candidate developed by the researchers of Oxford University has shown extremely encouraging results in its early trials and with this, the team at Jenner Institute has taken one more step closer to find a vaccine for COVID-19. The vaccine candidate has now been moved to the late-stage trials in Brazil, UK and South Africa to understand how effective it is in protecting against the novel coronavirus.

You may know Sarah Gilbert, who is the professor of vaccinology at Oxford University as the leader of the Oxford vaccine trial, which has just provided promising results in its Phase I trials.

As the world continues to wait with bated breath for any COVID vaccine to enter public circulation, Professor Sarah Gilbert and her team at Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group are racing against time to contain the pandemic which is wreaking havoc across the world. The British vaccinologist is leading the team of roughly 250 researchers who had started working on designing a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 on 10th January 2020, long before it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

The making of COVID Vaccine frontrunners

Understanding the need for prompt vaccine development to contain the novel coronavirus, Sarah had said in the month of February 2020, “Novel pathogens such as nCoV-19 require rapid vaccine development. By using technology that is known to work well for another coronavirus vaccine we are able to reduce the time taken to prepare for clinical trials. Advent are working with us to move as rapidly as possible.’

The moment Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus on 10 January 2020, Gilbert and her team started working on the same. “We didn’t know what it was early on,” she spoke to Bloomberg about developing a potential vaccine for coronavirus. “I was talking to colleagues thinking, yeah, as soon as the sequence comes out, we’ll make something; we’ll test it in mice; we’ll show what we can do.”

Sure enough, the vaccine candidate was identified by Gilbert’s team by the first week of March, in an astonishing time period of just three months. It is probably Sarah’s innate confidence in her team and her work that when she was asked about the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine before winter, she simply answered, “I hope we can improve on those timelines and come to your rescue.”

The visionary British vaccinologist

Gilbert’s expertise in making and testing vaccines was noted by the World Health Organization during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 when she and her team were given the responsibility to develop a plan of action to combat whenever a novel contagion (or Disease-X) broke out in the future. Hence, when the coronavirus pandemic first emerged in Wuhan, China, Sarah and her team were armed with years of research on MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus - MERS-CoV) to produce a vaccine candidate.

Her friends and former classmates remember Sarah as an extremely intelligent girl with a quiet demeanour and a friendly personality. Reading her interview with Bloomberg, it is easy to see why. "In order to determine vaccine efficacy for any novel coronavirus vaccine, the trial has to be set up in the right place at the right time, and that’s very hard to predict. It’s why we’re planning to do multiple trials in multiple countries,” Gilbert had shared, displaying her extraordinary knowledge of the details.

Sarah’s kids volunteered for Oxford vaccine trials

While Sarah has been waking up at four in the morning since January to inch closer to her dream of developing a COVID Vaccine and ending the pandemic, her 21-year-old triplets had also decided to take part in the Oxford vaccine trial against coronavirus. Speaking about their decision to take part in Phase I/II trial, Gilbert had said, “We didn’t really discuss it as I wasn’t home much at the time. We know the adverse event profile and we know the dose to use because we’ve done this so many times before.”

Rightfully touted as the face behind “the most advanced vaccine candidate anywhere” Sarah was lauded for her monumental efforts of developing an effective potential vaccine in the time frame of just 4 months when the Phase I trials first began on April 2020 on 1,110 people.

The hopeful realist...

Ultimately, Sarah’s biggest strength lies in the fact that she knows how to balance the hopes needed to lift spirits across the world with the truth. She very well understands the expectations weighing on her shoulders with the launching of the Oxford vaccine, hence she maintains, “The end of the year target for getting vaccine roll out, it’s a possibility but there’s absolutely no certainty about that.”

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