Having published 150 blog posts on coronavirus since March 2020, and as a recipient of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, I was eagerly looking forward to the publication of this book. When it dropped into my Audible inbox this morning, I immediately began listening as I ploughed on with my daily business of a councillor while living in self isolation. I was not disappointed.
Sarah Gilbert is Professor of Vaccinology at Oxford University. Dr Catherine Green is also at Oxford, where she is an Associate Professor in Chromosome Dynamics at the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics. Together they tell the story of how the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine was developed in record time amid a pandemic that affected their lives as much as everyone else’s.
Their message is: “We went faster because we had to.” That was despite at times feeling the strain of “an unedified mix of science, politics and emotions.”
The story begins with Professor Gilbert, who on New Year’s Day 2020 reads about a about four people in China with a strange pneumonia. She and her team were prepared. Within two weeks, they had designed a vaccine against a pathogen that no one had seen before. Within a year, vaccination was rolled out across the world to save millions of lives from Covid-19.
Professor Gilbert and Dr Green may have been leading one of the world’s finest efforts to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. They also had ordinary lives to live. Shopping, laundry and family had to be squeezed around 18 hour days. As Boris Johnson announcing lockdown on 23 March 2020, Green says: “No matter how much I was freaking out, my team couldn’t see it.”
They were also under huge pressure from the media. “The wall between my professional self and private self was crumbling” as criticism mounted of the vaccine across the EU and in the often vaccine sceptic USA under Trump.
This is not a political book. But Gilbert talks of an unedified mix of science, politics and emotions as they struggled to establish the credibility of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine:
“None of us saw how the vaccine would become a political football… Careless words and political gestures… Next time, and there will be a next time, we should add some political scientists to the team.”
These words reminded me of CP Snow’s Two Cultures – not for the first time during the pandemic. Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock studied PPE and Michael Gove English. That has shown in their reactions to the pandemic.
The Oxford scientists did not see the different vaccine development programmes as a race. The only competition was between the virus and humanity. They overturned technological hurdles, gained funding in weeks instead of years, worked bigger and faster.
The book is a two-hander with some chapters by Gilbert and others by Greene. This gives different perspectives on the race against the virus. Gilbert is more oriented towards policy and Gilbert towards biotechnology. It is not a dramatic book. Just the calm telling of events as you would expect from eminent scientists. Gilbert’s tilt against the antivaxxers and explanation of risk will not, I suspect, tell the audience for this book much they do not already know. Green’s honest account of dealing with the media works far better.
Choices had to be made. Discussions between scientists were sometimes heated. At one crucial meeting Green wryly notes: “No one threatened to punch anyone on the nose”.
When the decision to run with AstraZeneca was made at the highest levels of the university, researchers felt disconnected.
“It did feel like our relationship with the project had shifted. We were all very tired. Having AstraZeneca on board felt like an additional problem, not a solution. We all get on well now. But at the time, when we were working 18 hour days, we were not always happy about our new team member. Especially when it felt like our new team member was our new boss.”
There is so much more in this book which is well worth a read or listen. Although it is not a political book, it has lessons for politicians and all of us about how the often slow pace of scientific endeavour can be ramped up if there is the political will and the money in the face of an international emergency. As Green expounds in the final chapter, governments must get serious about funding preparedness for new threats (Disease Y), including funding research and infrastructure.
Vaxxers: The Inside Story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the Race Against the Virus by Professor Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green was published by Hodder and Stoughton on 8 July 2020. It is also available as an audiobook and will be BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week from 19 July.
This post was first published on Lib Dem Voice.