Oxford creates a vaccine to cure the world

Professor Sarah Gilbert: Bringing up triplets trained her to work on little sleep. © John Lawrence

Is this going to be the universal vaccine – not just for the wealthy? The Oxford team has created a Covid-19 jab which seems to be highly effective, easy to use and widely affordable.

On 31 December, while others were busy preparing for New Year parties, Sarah Gilbert found alarm bells ringing in her head. On the internet there were reports of an outbreak of “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan, China.

“We'd been planning for Disease X,” says the professor of vaccinology. “And I thought, this could be it.”

By “Disease X”, she meant a sinister new health threat that would take the world by surprise. She and her team at Oxford’s Jenner Institute had worked out a strategy to produce a vaccine in the shortest possible time – and yesterday it was triumphantly vindicated.

Trials showed that a small dose of their vaccine followed by a larger one was 90% effective in protecting against Covid-19. For flu vaccines, even 60% is considered a good rate.

The vaccine, named ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, mimics the coronavirus and trains the body to react if the recipient later contracts it.

The Oxford team were able to develop it so quickly because they had already created a vaccine against MERS on the same principles. They had taken a virus which causes the common cold in chimpanzees, and altered its genetic code so that it did not reproduce in humans. Once that had been done, it could be further modified to deal with whatever disease a vaccine was needed for.

In the case of Covid-19, the team added the genetic sequence of the “spike protein” – the key the virus uses to break into the body’s cells. The vaccine could now train the immune system to recognise and attack that spike.

Even with so much prior expertise, the team had to work day and night to develop their new vaccine. By April, they were ready to start trials.

Normally the testing process takes years. But in an extraordinary feat of organisation, the vaccine has now been tested on 24,000 people in the UK, Brazil and South Africa. None of them has developed a severe case of Covid-19.

Remarkably, Sarah Gilbert is an accidental vaccine expert. Her early research was into yeast for brewing, and she arrived at Oxford to work on a genetics project. That project just happened to be relevant to malaria, which sparked her interest in vaccines. She is now thought to be in contention for a Nobel Prize.

Two other successful vaccines have been announced, one by Pfizer/BioNTech and the other by Moderna. They are expected to be as much as 95% effective – but very expensive, costing £28 and £15 per dose respectively. Many worry that this could lead to "vaccine apartheid", in which rich countries receive the best while poorer ones rely on the leftovers

But the Oxford vaccine could be a "vaccine for the world" rather than a “vaccine for the few". With the university’s partner AstraZeneca producing it on a non-profit basis, it could cost as little as £3 a dose.

Furthermore, the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at -70C, whereas Oxford’s and Moderna’s can be kept in ordinary fridges – and are the easiest to transport.

Is this going to be the vaccine for the world?

A stab at a jab

Some say, yes. It is highly effective, far more affordable than the alternatives, and easier to deliver – so for countries like India and Peru it is the only real option. AstraZeneca has already taken orders for 3 billion doses and is geared up to produce and distribute it across the globe. It has been given geographically and ethnically diverse trials to make sure that it works for everybody.

Others argue that it is too early to say. There are many other vaccines still in development that could prove yet more effective and even cheaper. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has not yet completed its trials, but results so far suggest that it is 92% effective. Two Chinese vaccines are also in the final testing phase, as is one produced by the global pharmaceutical company Janssen.

You Decide

  1. Should there be a limit on how much private companies are allowed to charge for life-saving medical products?
  2. Vaccination programmes have been hampered by the anti-vax movement. Should spreading misinformation about vaccines be a criminal offence?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you are a member of the Oxford team. Write a diary entry for the day on which you learnt that the vaccine had passed its latest trial.
  2. An acrostic is a poem in which the first letter of each line spells out a word. Write a poem about the vaccine whose lines begin with the letters in ChAdOx1 nCoV-19.

Some People Say...

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Marie Curie (1867 - 1934), Polish scientist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the vaccine is hugely important for the standing of Oxford University and Britain. Oxford has been accused of producing an over-influential elite – but the vaccine’s development shows that supporting an elite can benefit everybody. Britain faces a loss of overseas influence with its departure from the EU and government plans to cut its foreign aid budget, but the vaccine could go a long way towards compensating for that.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how long-lasting the vaccine will prove. Experts doubt that Covid-19 will be eradicated entirely, and it may be necessary to vaccinate people every year. The virus might also mutate into a form the vaccine is ineffective against. Sarah Gilbert, however, argues that this is unlikely, since mutations in coronaviruses arise at a comparatively low rate, and the Oxford vaccine appears to work on all the mutations found so far.

Word Watch

Vaccinology
The study of vaccines. The name derives from the Latin word for cow.
Jenner
The science of vaccination was pioneered by Edward Jenner (1749- 1783), an English doctor, who discovered that milkmaids who contracted a mild disease called cowpox were immune from the severer one of smallpox.
ChAdOx1
Short for Chimpanzee Adenovirus Oxford One.
MERS
Short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Another type of coronavirus, it is also known as camel flu.
Pfizer
One of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, it was founded in New York in 1849 by two cousins from Germany.
Apartheid
A system of segregation, such as the one which used to exist in South Africa when its white rulers discriminated against other people. In Afrikaans the word means “separateness”.
AstraZeneca
A Swedish-British company based in Cambridge.

Subjects

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