Covid-19 has been a ‘big wake-up call’, says vaccines professor

Dublin-born Professor Adrian Hill, who is to receive an honorary knighthood, said the challenge is to prevent future outbreaks of disease.

Professor Adrian Hill
Professor Adrian Hill

Covid-19 has been a “big, wake-up call”, a leading scientist to be recognised by the Queen has said.

Dublin-born Professor Adrian Hill, Co-Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Vaccines, is to receive an honorary knighthood for his work.

One of his colleagues, Professor Teresa Lambe, also from Ireland, will be appointed an honorary OBE, also for services to science and public health.

They are among seven pioneering Oxford University scientists who are being recognised for having played integral roles in the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

Teresa Lambe
Professor Teresa Lambe (Steve Parsons/PA)

Mr Hill described the experience of the pandemic as “busy” and “stressful” but also rewarding in terms of the speed they were able to develop a vaccine and see it rolled out to the population.

Ms Lambe said the team she worked with went from being colleagues to family throughout the process.

“It’s been a baptism of fire to a certain extent and you forge very strong relationships working so hard and with a common purpose, a common goal, really wanting to get this vaccine out,” she said.

Looking to the future, Mr Hill emphasised the need to be prepared for other outbreaks.

“I think this has been a big, wake-up call. Ebola in 2014 was a small, wake-up call,” he said.

“We really have a problem, because if there’s another pandemic [and] the case fatality rate – the proportion of people who die – is not under one percent but was maybe 30% to 50% as it was with Ebola, then that’s absolutely disastrous.

“Think about what Covid would be like if half the people who were affected died. That wasn’t the case with this virus, but it is totally possible that some other virus will come along and then we have an enormous problem.

“Just look back at this century, only 21 years, and we have had swine flu, we’ve had other flu viruses, we had the first SARs virus, we had Zika, we had chikungunya, Ebola in 2014 and now the really big one, Covid-19.

“The challenge is partly to try and reduce the number of outbreaks. You can reduce that but we will always have outbreaks, the real challenge is to be able to respond more quickly so that an outbreak does not become a pandemic.

“That is what we are doing by having stocks of vaccines that might protect against all coronaviruses, and I think that might well be possible, then you don’t have to worry what strain it is, you can move in very quickly at the first report of an outbreak, vaccinating that country only and hopefully stop the (virus) going further.”

Meanwhile, as Covid-19 vaccines have been dominating the headlines, work is also progressing on a malaria vaccine.

He said a trial which started two years ago in 2019 in Burkina Faso in Africa was able to continue, and described the results as looking “very promising indeed”.

“Malaria could move faster but all vaccines could move faster judging by what’s been possible with Covid.

“We’re now having those discussions with regulators and other authorities about what would be needed for a disease that actually killed more people in Africa last year than Covid did by a factor of about four,” he said.

Mr Hill emphasised the power of vaccines, saying: “If you invest in vaccines you can do remarkable things.

“The technology is getting better all the time, the sky’s the limit, we should be making vaccines not just against outbreak pathogens, but against other degenerative diseases, against Alzheimer’s disease, against cancer, there really is great potential, we just need to leverage that.”

Ms Lambe added: “I am hopeful that everything we have learned will put us in a better position for when the next pandemic happens and it is not if, it is when, so we really need to try and not forget, and we really need to try and not run into the future and forget all the work we have done and what we have built.

“The work I do is on outbreaks and emerging pathogens, and the lessons I have learned will definitely help me make vaccines against the other scary viruses that are out there.”

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