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In early 2020 prognostications regarding the nascent COVID-19 pandemic were dire. There was tremendous pressure to come up with a vaccine—now! One mathematical modeler confided to Sir Andrew Pollard, Director, Oxford Vaccine Group, University of Oxford: "People you know will be dead by the summer if we let this go.” Looking back, Sir Andrew noted that “this really did wake me up to the urgency of the problem.”
The Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine has now been administered in over three billion doses in more than 180 countries. It is estimated to have saved 6.3 million lives last year alone. What is the story of innovation behind how this vaccine originated and got to market?
The heart of entrepreneurship is innovation—the ability to do something unique and different with a practical application, and often, very quickly. Sometimes an innovation will impact the world. That’s the story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine.
Sir Andrew Pollard’s research for many years has included the design, development, and clinical evaluation of vaccines in the UK, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He was the chief investigator for the clinical trials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in 2020.
Sir Andrew engaged in a Q & A Session on Friday, August 19th, 2022, with the cohort in this year’s ELO Leadership Program held at the University of Oxford. He has a background in pediatrics. “That experience of working in pediatrics has framed my research over the last 30 years, that is my academic focus around improving children’s health…in clinical practice, you get a sense that you are making a difference one child at a time, but new vaccines can make a difference at a population scale.”
He explained that “because I had an interest in how the immune system works when I came to Oxford, I realized that I could leverage that to make a difference globally.” It’s personally gratifying: “It’s exciting to do vaccine research because you see the impact of what you are doing only a few years later if you have developed a vaccine.” Further, “I have seen some of the things we are working on transform global health policy.”
How did Sir Andrew and his team tackle the Covid-19 pandemic? Due to previous work on typhoid and doing a trial with 100,000 children, he had built up a team: “When the pandemic arrived, we were in the perfect situation to be able to respond to what was a global trial.”
There is a high level of satisfaction. He noted that “an Airfinity analysis indicated that 6.3 million lives were saved last year due to the use of the vaccine, which is more than any other vaccine.”
What’s the worldview behind his determination? For most commercial development, there is a financial incentive, which is an important driver of innovation in business. Sir Andrew explained that in the case of this vaccine there was no financial driver; development was done with limited financial support from the UK Government and philanthropists and tremendous good will from a global team of academic researchers.
As he noted to the ELO cohort that if you are driven by money, you will naturally sell to the people with the most amount of money, so the doses would have gone to high-income countries. “We said it should be non-profit; the extraordinary bit is that AstraZeneca came along and said we are up for it. So, the objective was that the doses would go to the people who needed them.”
The COVAX Facility uses the World Health Organization's fair allocation method to provide all vaccine doses to recipient countries. This ensures that the doses reach the populations who need them most. At the start of the vaccine roll out, in the first half of 2021, 90% of vaccines provided to COVAX were the Oxford vaccine, because the other companies prioritized an investment return.