Sarah Gilbert fell into creating vaccines by accident. While she always intended to end up in medical research, her career took a circuitous route, from microbiology to virology via genetics. Ironically, as the professor of vaccinology at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute – a job that appears highly specialist – not specialising has stood her in good stead.
"They were all related disciplines, but I learnt a bit more each time," she says, speaking to me from her file-laden office on a video call. "This was very useful for vaccine development – for understanding the whole process from beginning to end."
Drawing on that experience at speed has been all the more important this year, in which even a week’s delay in the advancement of a Covid-19 vaccine could have a huge impact. When the genetic structure of a novel virus was published by China on 10 January, Gilbert was already revisiting work she had done on another coronavirus, Mers, concurrently applying for grants and licences to go ahead with a vaccine – steps that would, in normal circumstances, be sequential, and take months, rather than weeks. Her foresight seems particularly admirable, since at the time, there was little indication of how widespread or how serious the virus would become. "When we started making the vaccine, we didn’t know if it was going to be anything more than a small outbreak," she says.
But as the world succumbed to the growing pandemic, Gilbert threw herself into her work, which took up her evenings and weekends. "January, February, March were just mad," she says. "It does feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole career, because this is exactly what I do, it’s just I’ve had to do a lot more of it a lot faster."
Funding and distribution were key concerns right from the start; Gilbert was instrumental in getting the government to underwrite the initial costs, before bringing the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca onboard. This meant the vaccine was being manufactured during clinical trials, so that after regulatory approval, two billion doses could be rolled out.
"If you work on some technology in a research lab that looks absolutely fantastic in the early studies, but is hugely expensive to manufacture, it’s never going to be used on a wider scale," she explains.
In July, the results of the phase-one trials, in which her triplet sons had all signed up to participate, confirmed that the vaccine triggered an immune response, and that it appeared to be safe. Two further phases quickly followed, to see whether it offered protection against infection. Throughout 2020, announcements from Gilbert provided a reassuring narrative of progress, against a backdrop of scant test availability, government mishaps and a rapidly rising infection rate.
"I’m not interested in getting involved in politics," she says. ‘I get drawn into it peripherally because I say things like, 'We should be vaccinating the whole world and not just the high-income countries.' But what has happened with some scientists in the past is they’ve been pulled into speaking about areas that are not their core knowledge, and then things can go wrong. I stick with what I know."
We are talking just after phase-three trials were temporarily halted when a tester fell ill. I ask Gilbert how she has weathered this sudden media attention. "It is hard. There has been immense pressure as people try to get details, details, details," she says matter-of-factly. "I’ve turned my phone off; they call and say, 'You need to be transparent.' But we don’t reveal the details because ultimately, it’s not fair on the person affected. It’s routine to have a pause on a clinical trial, it’s part of good safety oversight. We need to trust the regulators."
After our interview, she emails me a quote from the American educator Marva Collins that has kept her motivated throughout the year: "Determination and perseverance move the world; thinking that other people will do it for you is a sure way to fail." For Gilbert, and indeed for the whole of humanity, failure is not an option.
Sarah Gilbert wears Max Mara with Manolo Blahnik shoes and Bulgari jewellery, styled by Holly Gorst.
This was originally published as part of our 2020 Women of the Year portfolio in the December issue of Harper's Bazaar - out now.
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