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Meet Sarah Gilbert, Oxford’s Coronavirus Vaccine Hunter and Most Important Person in Science Right Now

By: Simantini Dey


Last Updated: July 21, 2020, 18:22 IST

Professor Sarah Gilbert, who is leading development of a coronavirus vaccine at Oxford University, in Oxford, April 24, 2020.. (Mary Turner/The New York Times)

Professor Sarah Gilbert, who is leading development of a coronavirus vaccine at Oxford University, in Oxford, April 24, 2020.. (Mary Turner/The New York Times)

The vaccine developed by Professor Gilbert and her team of dedicated researchers from the Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group is the current frontrunner and early findings have shown promising results.

On Monday, British vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert and her team at Oxford University leapfrogged towards the finish line, leaving other contenders behind, in the race to find the vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

The early findings of Gilbert and her team's research have shown promising results, with trials conducted on 1,077 individuals revealing that when they were injected with the vaccine it led to strong immune responses with only minor side effects. The shot induced a strong antibody and T cell immune response among participants.

For Gilbert, however, this race for the vaccine is all about saving the human race. As coronavirus continues to claim thousands of lives every day across the world, Gilbert is working on extremely tight timelines to come up with a working vaccine, that would not only be the next saviour of humankind, but also one of the biggest achievements in medical history.

And, she is confident that she would be able to do it. In early July, when asked by a group of British MPs if there will be a vaccine before winter, she had reportedly replied, “I hope we can improve on those timelines and come to your rescue."

This is also the first vaccine to enter phase-3 trials. More than 10,000 participants in Britain, Brazil and South Africa have already received doses. Another Phase III test involving 30,000 participants in the United States is set to begin next week.

Her superwoman-like assertion of 'coming to rescue' may seem like hyperbole, but it isn't. In the past four months, the Oxford team, which consists of almost 250 people led by Gilbert, has, in fact, achieved the impossible: They have come up with a vaccine that generally would take years to manufacture.

This, however, is no miracle. When the Ebola outbreak happened, the Jenner Institute (where Gilbert works) of the Oxford University was at the helm of first trials of Ebola vaccine, and Gilbert was drafted by WHO to come up with a plan to swiftly respond to 'Disease X' - any unknown, but an inevitable pathogen - so that speedy actions can be taken as and when required in future.

That future is here. The pathogen or Disease X is obviously Covid-19, and Gilbert is ready. She also has the leverage that years of researching MERS has provided her, which undoubtedly, she has used well to her advantage.

Gilbert is also a superhero in a white lab coat on several other counts. She is the mother of 21-year-old triplets, all of whom have volunteered to be part of the trials of Covid-19 vaccine, even though it is still too early to know what kind of effect(s) it might have in the long run.

As a researcher, she got to work on the virus as soon as Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of Covid-19, on January 10, 2020. Since then, Gilbert has been waking up every morning at 4 am, working for long hours to make the vaccine a reality.

Straight-A student, a musician, a mother

Gilbert has always been an overachiever. According to an article published in Northants Telegraph, Gilbert passed her 0-level exams from Kettering High School with six As. She hails from a family of musicians, and as a kid, she played the oboe for the school orchestra. It is also at this school that she grew to love the biosciences and later moved to the University of East Anglia to complete her bachelor's degree in the subject.

Following that she got her Ph.D. from Hull University. However, she didn't initially pursue a career in academics and instead chose to work for the Leicester Biocentre, for the first two years of her professional life. She then moved on to a biotech company, Delta, where she learned about drug manufacturing.

It is this practical knowledge of drug manufacturing, combined with her academic prowess that would later help her lead the most important vaccine research in modern times, during a global pandemic. However, at the time she didn't know it. She soon returned to academics and did a stellar job there too, quickly climbing up the ranks.

Most of her classmates describe her as a 'quiet', 'hard-working,' and an 'intelligent' girl, who was always amicable and polite, and her ex-colleagues remember her for her efficiency and dedication, and are happily rooting for her on social media to save the mankind, quite literally.

In 1994, she bagged a senior position at Oxford, and after four years of working there, she stepped into motherhood with triplets. Gilbert later told the Nuffield Department of Medicine, “Because I had triplets, nursery fees would have cost more than my entire income as a post-doctoral scientist, so my partner has had to sacrifice his own career in order to look after our children.”

"When I had the children in 1998 I was only entitled to 18 weeks paid maternity leave, which was tough when I had three premature infants to care for," she added. As a working mother, she enjoyed the flexible hours but there were also certain things that were fixed, for which she had to sacrifice her time with family. The vaccinologist added that a good support system is obviously a must if one has to strike a work-life balance.

Away from the limelight: A career with many achievements

Although Gilbert is the most important woman, nay person, in science today, she doesn't have the time to spare to enjoy the limelight. She says, she is doing what she is supposed to do, i.e. making the vaccine.

For the last ten years, she has dedicated her life to manufacturing and testing vaccines which are made to induce T cell responses, majorly by using antigens from malaria, and influenza. Several such vaccines made by her have also passed clinical trials. However, this is not what she wanted to do, when she returned to academia initially.

According to a report in The Telegraph, her aim was to study human genetics, but while doing so, it brought forth 'the role of a particular type of immune response in protection against malaria'. Therefore, Gilbert decided to make a vaccine that would 'work through that type of immune response', and eventually she ventured into vaccine making.

For coronavirus, the vaccine Gilbert is making uses chimpanzee's adenovirus (a common cold virus) along with the genetic material from the protein spike of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which would prompt the immune system to fight back the virus.

The vaccine in early trials stimulated antibodies as well as T-cells (white blood cell type) which would push the immune system to destroy Covid-19. Most of her preliminary knowledge and upper hand in researching Covid-19 for Gilbert comes from her research of MERS for which she went to Saudi Arabia in 2015. According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report, Gilbert tried to make the MERS vaccine using the chimp adenovirus and fusing it the genetic material of the MERS virus, a very similar approach that she is using for COVID-19 vaccine.

However, before her claim to fame, she had a hard time getting funding for MERS vaccine trials. Although the same problem was initially faced while starting trials for the Covid-19 vaccine, help soon poured in from different quarters, including a 2.2 million pound grant from the UK government.

Hope for Women in Science

There have been several reports in the last few months that claimed that women researchers have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, as they are overburdened by their household chores, and primary caregiving responsibilities, their work output is being adversely affected, due to lack of time and attention.

It is indeed worrisome, given that women are already so few in the field of research. According to UIS data, less than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are women. In such a situation, Gilbert isn't just a ray of hope for the medical community, but also an inspiration to all women researchers across the world. What also adds to her reputation is the simple and accessible way in which she explains the complex science of the vaccine to the general public.

However, despite her well-deserved rise to fame, Gilbert isn't making claims that she may not be able to live up to. In an interview with BBC, Gilbert chose her words wisely when she said, "The prospects (of the vaccine) are very good, but it is clearly not completely certain."