As the world continues to fight the spread of COVID-19, which has so far claimed 600,012 lives worldwide, hundreds of trials for a vaccine are in various mid to late-stage trials.
According to the World Health Organization, over 150 vaccines are currently being developed, with 23 being evaluated in clinical trials.
Below, meet some of the women who are spearheading vaccine research.
Professor of Vaccinology
Jenner Institute & Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine
Professor Gilbert has been interested in genetics, biochemistry and vaccinology since she was a student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England in the early 80s. Since 2008, she’s been making vaccines that induce T cell responses using antigens from malaria and influenza.
Many of the vaccines developed in her laboratory have progressed into clinical trials. Dr Gilbert has spent the last 15 years working on novel influenza vaccinations and in 2004, she was appointed as a Reader in Vaccinology at the University of Oxford.
Currently, she’s part of a team at Oxford working on a vaccine, called AZD1222 (development by AstraZeneca). The vaccine is a a modified version of the ChAdOx1 vaccine ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 and at this stage, it appears safe, triggering an immune response. AstraZeneca’s is currently one of the leading vaccines against the virus.
The trial saw more than a thousand people tested. The injection made antibodies and T-cells inside the participant’s bodies that can fight the coronavirus. The vaccine is made from a unique, genetically engineered virus that induces the common cold in chimpanzees (also called a chimpanzee adenovirus; to carry elements of Covid-19 into human cells. They modify the virus so that the vaccine resembles the coronavirus and the immune system can learn how to attack it.
90 percent of participants who were injected with the trial vaccine developed neutralising antibodies after just one dose. Ten people were given two doses and all of them produced neutralising antibodies.
“There is still much work to be done before we can confirm if our vaccine will help manage the Covid-19 pandemic, but these early results hold promise,” Dr Gilbert told BBC.
“We still do not know how strong an immune response we need to provoke to effectively protect against SARS-CoV-2 infection,” she said.
She also spoke to the ABC, where she said “There is still much work to be done before we can confirm if our vaccine will help manage the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Dr Gilbert believes that researchers needed to learn more about COVID-19 and sustain further late stage trials. Because of her team’s background and institutional support, Dr Gilbert created the vaccine very quickly — a typical timeline of five years was diminished to three months.
So far, the AZD1222 is safe but there are side-effects, though according to trial results published in The Lancet medical journal they are not too severe. The vaccine has so far elicited antibody and T-cell immune responses. However, 70 percent of people on the trial developed either a fever or headache. Researchers said these side effects can be managed by taking paracetamol.
What now? According to BBC, over the next few months, more than 10,000 people will take part in the next stage of the trials in the UK. The trial will be expanded to other countries since levels of COVID are low in the UK. The study won’t however show whether the vaccine can prevent people from becoming ill or even lessen their symptoms of Covid-19.
Chairwoman of the UK Vaccine Taskforce
In mid-May this year, Kate Bingham was appointed Chair of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, a group set up by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser to lead efforts to produce a vaccine. Her role involves coordinating government, academia and industry towards developing a vaccine that can be mass produced and safely administered to the public.
“What we are doing is identifying the most promising vaccines across the different categories,” she told the BBC. “[We want to] be sure that we do have a vaccine in case one of those actually proves to be both safe and effective.”
“It’s unlikely to be a single vaccine for everybody. We may well need different vaccines for different groups of people,” she said.
Bingham has worked in the biotech industry for more than a quarter of a century and was Managing Partner at SV Health Investor since the early 1990s, where she was responsible for biotech investments in the UK. Back in May, she said of her new role: “Our immediate aim on vaccines is two-fold: to ensure everyone in the UK that needs to be vaccinated against COVID-19 can be as soon as practicable.”
“Secondly, to ensure adequate global distribution of vaccines to bring the quickest possible end to the pandemic and the economic and social damage it causes.”
Speaking to the Financial Times, Bingham described the “unprecedented pace at which we are moving,” though urges citizens from becoming “too complacent or over-optimistic.”
“The fact remains we may never get a vaccine and if we do get one, we have to be prepared that it may not be a vaccine which prevents getting the virus, but rather one that reduces symptoms,” she said.
Bingham received first class honours from the University of Oxford in Biochemistry and studied on a Kennedy Scholarship at Harvard Business School (MBA Baker Scholar). She’s been heavily involved in the investment of drug discoveries and bio-therapeutic development projects since her tertiary days, and in 2015, helped set up the country’s Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF). She continues to serve on the DDF Investment Committee.
Researcher, Institute of Biomedical Sciences
Sao Paulo’s University
Professor Pasternak believes that Brazil has one of the best systems of logistics and manufacturing installations in the world. The microbiologist is the president of the Question of Science Institute in São Paulo, and told told CNN’s Bill Weir that science in her country is being “ignored in this government as it has never been before.”
“It is necessary to go to a country where the disease is circulating strongly and where there are institutes and qualified professionals to carry out the tests,” she said. “Brazil offers these two crucial factors.”
Professor Pasternak holds a PhD in microbiology from the University of São Paulo and is a specialist in molecular genetics. She invests in the dissemination of scientific data and is interested in promoting public policies based on science.
In 2018, she helped create the Instituto Questão de Ciência (IQC), a non-profit association that aims to deepen discussions in the medical field, including for the financing of research – a project which became even more critical since the Covid-19 pandemic.
In an interview with ISTOÉ, she described the “jittery conduct by the federal government.” When asked if the lack of coordination by the Ministry of Health made the COVID situation worse in her country, Pasternak agreed.
“We are lucky to be a federation and the governments of the states to have more autonomy,” she said. “But a lot depends on the federal government, such as the distribution of diagnostic tests and the import of inputs for testing. It is a general mess and states have been orphaned.”
“Everyone did what they can and now they decided to reopen under pressure from sectors of the economy. But, before that, we saw the efforts of the States, even with the absence or even wrong guidelines of the federal government.”
“The balance is delicate. Having wrong information is worse than not having it. The serious media outlets have done a good job, concerned with passing on correct information. The press and science are being revalued. I’m an optimist. There has never been so much talk about science as now. It is clear that the direct publication of study previews to the public, without peer evaluation, can discredit science, as happened in the case of the study of chloroquine.”
Pasternak also explained her disbelief over the lack of science education in Brazil.
“Science teaches you to think critically and rationally, regardless of the career that the person will follow,” she said. “We have stopped teaching science in schools. It is taught as if it were a finished and made dish, not as a process. And if you don’t think like a process, there is no chance. One begins to believe only in miraculous solutions, without question.”
“We must see that antibodies are not being good markers for Covid-19. Studies show that not everyone produces antibodies. And whoever produces it has no guarantee that the antibody will stay, because after two or three months it may drop.”
She expressed her dismay over the Brazilian government’s attempts to hide the number of COVID cases, and believes the lack of transparency can compromise data.
“Because the countries that did the best to combat the pandemic were those that communicated well with the population. Transparency and honesty make people feel safer and engage in combat, at a time when facing the pandemic depends only on people’s behaviour.”
Postdoctoral researcher & vaccine scientist
Oxford Vaccine Group
Dold runs an OVG containment facility (Oxford Vaccine Group) and is working on a research project to understand why people’s bodies respond so differently to Covid-19. She told The Guardian that when the Oxford team working on a Covid-19 vaccine began weekly meetings, she referred to them as “Cobra” meetings.
Currently, over 250 people are working on the trial; they hail from the Oxford’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group (OVG). The trial involves taking blood samples from volunteers before and after immunisation — their samples are assessed in Dold’s lab at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford.
The OVG have conducted trials for vaccines against all kinds of illnesses including malaria, prostate cancer and the common flu.
“When it came down to it, we realised this was something we had done a million times before,” Dold told The Guardian. “Not to toot our own horn, but we are pros at delivering clinical trials.”
Before the pandemic, Dold worked on a plague vaccine with an increasing number of human trials. Regarding the vaccine against COVID, Dold explained the unusual experience.
“The day after we processed our first sample, one of my lab workers fell ill. Then another. We had the BBC news on. Boris was telling us to wash our hands, and we were processing Covid-19 samples in protective gear and shouting at him.”
“I’ve been wearing a tracksuit to work for the past six weeks. Not many people have followed suit, but then I’m not patient-facing.”
Her team is working closely with Dr Sarah Gilbert. A few months ago, she delivered samples to the office of Sarah Gilbert , who reminded her to keep her chin up during these difficult times.