As the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, two women in different parts of Oxford celebrated the dawn of 2020 with little idea of what lay ahead.
The next day, before shutting her laptop to return to the jigsaw puzzle she was completing with her husband and grown-up triplets, Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the city’s university, noticed that four cases of a ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ had been reported in Wuhan, China.
Meanwhile, her colleague, Cath Green, who runs the university’s Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility which makes vaccines, had hosted a New Year’s Eve party after recently separating from her husband.
There had been dancing, cocktails, fizzy wine and chocolate cake – but no mention of the virus that would come to haunt the headlines.
However, over the coming weeks and months as Covid-19 took over the world, these two women found themselves on the front line of the race for a vaccine to halt the pandemic.
Their success in creating the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine – now in millions of arms worldwide – has just earned them recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Now, in a compelling new book, Vaxxers, they tell the breathtaking story and relive the high-stakes drama as they strove to produce a vaccine in months – something that normally would have taken years.
Their achievement was built on decades of painstaking preparation, teamwork and considerable personal sacrifice. Above all, it is a story of ordinary people coming together in extraordinary times to attempt an extraordinary thing.
It has been described as ‘one of the most epic and pioneering moments in human history, comparable to the race to put a man on the Moon, the discovery of DNA or the first ascent of Everest’.
In their own words, here is their story.
Scientific discovery on this scale is very rarely a eureka moment for a lone genius. It definitely was not in this case.
It was a collaborative effort by an international network of thousands of heroes – dedicated scientists in Oxford and across four continents, but also clinicians, regulators, manufacturers and the brave volunteer citizens who offered up their arms for us.
Cath and I were just two scientists among many in the right place at the right time to fight back.
We don’t have cleaners, or drivers, or nannies, and like everyone else we had other things going on in our lives.
And though there was plenty of drama, there was not one big breakthrough moment – in a bath or under an apple tree or late at night in a silent, empty lab – but lots and lots and lots of small moments.
There were days when we swore or cried with frustration and exhaustion. We lost sleep and gained weight.
As the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, two women in different parts of Oxford celebrated the dawn of 2020 with little idea of what lay ahead. Over the coming weeks and months as Covid-19 took over the world, Sarah Gilbert (pictured) and Cath Green found themselves on the front line of the race for a vaccine to halt the pandemic.
There were days when we met a prince, or a prime minister, and other days when it seemed we had to both save the world and get the central heating fixed.
Some days we drank champagne, others we struggled to find anything to eat for lunch. There were days when we seemed to be battling against our employer, or the media, or a swarm of wasps in a wall in the house, as well as the virus.
Most days it felt like our big chance to make a positive impact on global health. Occasionally it felt like a heavy burden to bear.
But we kept going, as did many others who worked alongside us, for long days, through weekends and bank holidays, until our vision of a vaccine for the world was finally realised.
On Friday, January 3, 2020, I was checking regularly for updates on this unusual new disease in China, in between a cold but sunny walk through the Oxfordshire countryside, a pub lunch and making dinner to suit each family member’s different tastes.
A post that day reported 44 cases with 11 people critically ill, and that 121 close contacts of those infected were being monitored.
It was still unclear what was causing it, but it was described as ‘SARS-like’. If that was true, I knew we could be in trouble.
SARS is a coronavirus which first caused serious outbreaks in Asia in 2002. Another coronavirus, MERS, caused outbreaks in the Middle East in 2012. Both led to hundreds of deaths.
On January 20, Sarah…