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Oxford jab creator says vaccine development has gone ‘backwards’

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert says her team is struggling to raise money to develop vaccines against already known diseases.

Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2021
Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2021

Lessons have not been learnt from the coronavirus pandemic in the need to properly fund the development of vaccines into other infectious diseases, one of the creators of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab has said.

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert said her team was struggling to raise the money needed to develop vaccines against diseases already known about, yet alone those yet to emerge.

She said the Covid-19 pandemic should have taught us that vaccines must be stockpiled in case diseases mutated and became highly infectious.

Before starting work on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in January last year, Dame Sarah said she had been working on vaccines for the Nipah virus, Lassa fever and Mers.

Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2021
Dr Catherine Green who joined Professor Gilbert at the festival

During an event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with Oxford colleague Dr Catherine Green, Dame Sarah said her work had gone “backwards” since the pandemic.

“We’ve actually gone backwards in terms of the work we’re doing on development of vaccines for the outbreak pathogens before the pandemic,” she said.

“It’s just really slowed right down, trying to get that moving again is really difficult and the funding still isn’t there to move that on.

“We learned in the pandemic that we could do things faster, we could do things better, we want to be applying those lessons, but we still need to get the funding in place to do that.

“We need stockpiles of vaccines against these pathogens we already know about because how’s it going to look if suddenly there’s a big Nipah outbreak that starts to spread around the world?

“We’ve known about that for years and we started making a vaccine five years ago, but we haven’t done it yet, it’s not finished.”

Scientists believe Nipah virus has the potential to cause a pandemic and recently a 12-year-old boy died in India having become infected.

“Something everybody is very much aware of now, is how as SARS-CoV-2 has spread through the world,” Dame Sarah said.

“It’s mutated, it’s evolved and what we’ve ended up with is the Delta variant which is very highly transmissible.

“If we get a Delta variant of Nipah virus then suddenly we’ve got a highly transmissible virus with a 50% fatality rate.”

Dame Sarah said vaccines of known diseases needed to be stockpiled and health workers in areas where there are outbreaks needed to be vaccinated quickly.

“We can make vaccines, we can have stockpiles, we can immunise the health care workers in the regions where the outbreaks are most likely to happen,” she told the festival.

“To protect the healthcare workers themselves and that’s really important because we want them to be able to go and do their job and respond to the start of a new outbreak.

“But if we don’t protect them, they get infected and then it’s often healthcare workers inadvertently spread the outbreak because they go back to their communities or their homes and then they’re infected and they spread it.

“We have to make sure they’re fully protected, and you can do that with really good personal protective equipment, but you do much better if you have a vaccine.”

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