PART II of II
To read Part I, click HERE
How did the Oxford team get started? Sir Andrew Pollard, Director, Oxford Vaccine Group, University of Oxford, explained that “brilliantly, the Chinese scientists sent the genetic code of the virus all around the world to vaccine developers and scientists…that same day this arrived in Oxford.” This was in January 2020 when little was known about the virus. Several team members, including Dame Sarah Gilbert, originally worked on it as an “academic exercise.”
How does an academic institution like the University of Oxford—where there has been teaching since at least 1096 and was granted a Royal Charter in 1248—engage in innovation? Most people would assume that academics are bureaucratic and slow-moving and are dwarfed by innovation in the industry. Sir Andrew noted that Oxford academics do indeed work in their silos focused on their academic interests, and they are not often joined together, but this default position was overcome exigencies of the times.
He realized that to effectively tackle the issue of coming up with an effective vaccine they needed to work together within the university—“that was a critical moment.” That meant that they could assign tasks and lead a team effort. “Your worldview frames your approach. Success is usually getting your name on a paper but we agreed that in the pandemic this does not matter – we need to bring our skills to this. I said to our team that we need to come together to achieve something.”
What was the innovation? Sir Andrew took time to explain this point to this year's ELO Leadership Programme cohort in Oxford. He noted that “there hasn’t been much innovation in the creation of the vaccine over the past 2.5 years; the innovation is around how to do things quickly.” He explained that the viral vector technology is decades old and RNA technologies are more than 10 years old. This is an interesting feature of innovation—it may be incremental modifications to existing technologies that make a critical difference.
The frightening spectre for researchers is that “the pandemic modelling says that most people will have died from a pandemic before you can make a vaccine for it.” So, there was a great sense of urgency.
The University of Oxford was able to deliver a viable vaccine for a number of reasons. One was that the institution moved quickly. Vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, was behind it and helped overcome the pushback from some in the community. “There were people with peripheral bits of knowledge who were very scared. That roller coaster was enormous pressure.”
The university was quite helpful in working with AstraZeneca. The commercial arrangement was completed within weeks of the first contact. At the start, it took a while to build the relationships between the academic community and the for-profit organization.
Another issue is the funding of trials. Often an initial trial could cost CAD$2-3M. There are often many built-in delays regarding trials. Sir Andrew notes that, fortunately, “we didn’t need to chase money all the way through.”
“Communication among the team was very important to let everyone know what was going on, thanking people for doing a lot of the grinding tasks. At the peak, there were 400 people in my team working in Oxford.”
What about the efficacy of the vaccines? As Sir Andrew clarified, the vaccines do not stop infection; the measurement is the reduction of those dying and going to the hospital. Oxford, Pfizer, and Moderna were all around 100% effective against death. “The virus is not out to kill you, it’s all about transmission….they are mutating all the time….a feature is that the coronavirus will be with us for the rest of our lifetimes…..but we won’t get another pandemic with this same virus.”
The story of the vaccine has been intense and high profile. “It’s been a strange experience getting accolades for what is our bread & butter, what we have been doing for a long time. At one point, we were getting 1,000 inquiries per hour from news outlets and journalists. We had 18 people working with the media.”
There is not much time, however, to savour what has been accomplished. As Sir Andrew pointed out, “the very chilling bit is that we were very lucky in this pandemic as we have 20 years of experience of how to make coronavirus vaccines.” Next time we may not be so lucky.