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Univ. of Oxford Vaccine: Ready by September?!

Meet Sarah Gilbert!

By Shlomo Maital  

Prof. Sarah C. Gilbert, Univ. of Oxford

A Bloomberg News report has optimistic information about the University of Oxford’s burgeoning COVID-19 vaccine, which, Bloomberg says, could be ready by September.*  In a deal with Astra-Zeneca, the latter says it could quickly prepare as many as 2 billion doses. And sell them on a not-for-profit basis!   And there is a lovely human side to this medical tale. So – meet Sarah Gilbert.  She might just save your life.

     “In April, Sarah Gilbert’s three children, 21-year-old triplets all studying biochemistry, decided to take part in a trial for an experimental vaccine against Covid-19.     It was their mother’s vaccine—she leads the University of Oxford team that developed it—but there wasn’t a big family talk. “We didn’t really discuss it as I wasn’t home much at the time,” Gilbert told me recently. She’d been working around the clock, as one does while trying to end a pandemic, and at any rate wasn’t worried for her kids. “We know the adverse event profile and we know the dose to use, because we’ve done this so many times before,” she says. “Obviously we’re doing safety testing, but we’re not concerned.”   With safety low on her list of worries (her triplets are fine), Gilbert is focused on quickly determining how effective the vaccine will be and how it will be made. In April, Oxford struck a deal with British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca Plc to spearhead global manufacturing and distribution and help run more trials around the world. AstraZeneca has agreed to sell the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis during the crisis if it proves effective and has lined up deals with multiple manufacturers to produce more than 2 billion doses.

   Prof. Gilbert shuns the limelight. But she may soon well be one of the most famous scientists in the world:

    ” Gilbert has been all over the British press, but she appears to regard public attention as a distraction. For more than two decades she worked anonymously, developing vaccines while also, of necessity, churning out endless grant applications. Her research was rarely discussed outside scientific circles. Now she’s leading one of the most high-profile and advanced vaccine candidates against Covid-19, with Phase III, or final-stage, trials under way involving thousands of people in Brazil, South Africa, the U.K., and, soon, the U.S. Money is no longer a struggle. At the end of April, crunching a process that normally takes about five years into less than four months, Gilbert and her colleagues at Oxford’s Jenner Institute started a human trial on 1,100 people. When Gilbert testified before a parliamentary committee in early July, one member compared her effort to going into a shed and coming out with a jet engine. Gilbert’s team has leapfrogged other vaccine contenders to the point where it will likely finish vaccinating subjects in its big 10,000-person efficacy trial before other candidates even start testing on that scale, Kate Bingham, chair of the U.K. government’s Vaccine Taskforce, told the parliamentary committee in early July. “She’s well ahead of the world,” Bingham said. “It’s the most advanced vaccine anywhere.”

   This is no overnight success. Gilbert has labored for years in her laboratory, to develop the knowledge and skill that perhaps has prepared her for this moment, to save the world:

    ” Gilbert, who is 58, has the hyper-efficient, serious demeanor you’d expect from someone who might be on the cusp of a breakthrough and hasn’t a minute to spare. When I first called her in early March, she abruptly ended the conversation after 10 minutes to speak to someone about the technical process of manufacturing the vaccine. It would have been crazy to take offense. Gilbert says she wakes up at around 4 a.m. most days “with lots of questions in my head,” works from home for a few hours, then rides her bicycle to the institute, where she works into the evening. The Oxford team, just a handful of people in January, now comprises roughly 250.     The vaccine is a so-called viral vector type based on years of research by Gilbert and Adrian Hill, the head of the Jenner Institute. Traditional vaccines are made with a weakened or inactivated form of the germ that causes infection to stimulate an immune response. Those vaccines aren’t easy to develop and produce quickly. The Oxford team has developed a technology that can speed up the process by using a harmless virus as a kind of Trojan horse to carry the genetic material of a pathogen into cells to generate an immune response. In the case of Covid-19, Gilbert has taken a chimpanzee adenovirus (a common cold virus) and inserted genetic material from the surface spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a way of tricking the immune system to fight back. The chimp adenovirus platform stimulates both antibodies and high levels of killer T-cells, a type of white blood cell that helps the immune system destroy infection.

   The Oxford – Gilbert vaccine could still fail. But I don’t think so. Gilbert is confident.

   “Gilbert has voiced remarkable confidence in her chances, saying the Oxford vaccine has an 80% probability of being effective in stopping people who are exposed to the novel coronavirus from developing Covid-19. She has said she could know by September. Asked by MPs in early July whether the world would have to struggle through the winter without a vaccine, Gilbert said, “I hope we can improve on those timelines and come to your rescue.”     “We could say, ‘OK, we can start tomorrow.’ We don’t have to make 10 different varieties of this. We knew it could be manufactured”

* https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-07-15/oxford-s-covid-19-vaccine-is-the-coronavirus-front-runner

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital

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