When it comes to saving the world — literally — failure isn’t an option. But this is no Hollywood science fiction drama, this coronavirus pandemic is real life — and death — with some 17 million cases worldwide and almost 700,000 fatalities.
Never before has the entire focus of medical, biotech, computing, and any and every other area of study been so focused on a single task — finding a vaccine capable of stopping coronavirus in its tracks. Or at least being able to offer as many people as possible a fighting chance against the pernicious and invisible enemy that has turned the world as all 7 billion of us knew heading into 2020. Yet, by the years’ end, it is hoped that at least one of two vaccines currently in critical testing phases, will be ready for mass manufacture and distribution. And yes, millions of lives depend on their success.
Professor Sarah Gilbert’s three children — all 21-year-old triplets and students of biochemistry — were quick to roll up their sleeves in early April and be tested with their mother’s experimental vaccine against COVID-19. Gilbert is a professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute and Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine in Oxford, England, and leads the team at the university there that has developed the best shot yet of a coronavirus vaccine.
The triplets had few doubts about the potentially damaging effects of their mother’s immunological cocktail — Gilbert has a spectacular record in fighting recent epidemiological scourges, and vaccines developed by her team are used against MERS, Crimean Congo haemorraghic fever, Nipah virus and Lassa fever, or in widespread trials Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya and Zika viruses.
Focus on the efficacy of the Oxford vaccine
In April, Oxford University struck a deal with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca Plc to set up a worldwide manufacturing and distribution network to provide vaccinations — on a not-for-profit basis — based on the results of Gilbert’s team. The company is also helping run trials of the vaccine that, so far, is highly promising. If it continues to prove effective, two billion doses will be rushed into immediate production.
Naturally, a lot of media attention is focused on the efficacy of the Oxford vaccine and the work of the 58-year-old professor and her team at the university and Vaccitech, its commercial spin-off led by Gilbert. With degrees from both East Anglia and Hull universities under her belt, Gilbert’s work has been rather anonymous and out of the public eye for the past two decades — rarely discussed outside close epidemiological and related circles. But coronavirus changed that and Gilbert’s team may very well change the most physical fearful and economically debilitating effects of coronavirus itself.
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“It doesn’t need to cure you,” she said of the potential vaccine she began to develop and test as early as February. “It just needs to protect you.”
Come September, Gilbert may very well carve out a name for herself in the pantheon of medical greats such as Sir Alexander Fleming, Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur or Joseph Lister. Would a Nobel be far behind?
Peer acclaim is certainly rewarding — but so too the financial rewards of being first to the market with a successful coronavirus vaccine. While Oxford and its partners have adopted a not-for-profit model to ensure as many does reach as many people as possible, there’s a different slant on the other side of the Atlantic.
First to launch human trials
The slide in stock values in the immediate aftermath of the economic hibernation caused by the pandemic might seem to be an unlikely time for new billionaires to emerge. Stephane Bancel, the 48-year-old French-born CEO of Moderna Therapeutics’, stands to make billions more with his 9 per cent holding if the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech firm proves to have developed an effective coronavirus vaccine.
The company was the first globally to begin human trials in the middle of March — the same week that much of Europe entered strict pandemic lockdowns. Its Phase Two human trials have just completed and it stands to make billions by manufacturing and licensing any potentially successful vaccine.
Last Monday, Moderna announced that it has received an additional $472 million (Dh1.73 billion) in financing from Washington to support its late-stage development of the vaccine. Right now it is in the process of testing then evaluating the results of 30,000 doses to be injected into people, with the results known by October.
Bancel, who grew up in the Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, became CEO in 2011 with two masters degrees in engineering from universities in Paris and Minnesota, and an MBA from Harvard Business School to boot.
Moderna’s expertise in vaccines
Before that he was CEO of a French diagnostics company that has developed a COVID-19 test that was approved by US health regulators.
Bancel’s company specialises in developing drugs and vaccines that use a person’s own cells to make proteins that fight or prevent specific diseases from taking hold.
So far it has shown promising results in developing vaccines against chikungunya, a disease spread by mosquitoes mostly in Asia and Africa, and against cytomegalovirus, part of the herpes family of viruses and one that causes birth defects.
But Moderna’s expertise has given it a head start in developing a coronavirus vaccine, one that may be rolled out to first in emergency situations to health care workers by the autumn.
Unlike Gilbert, whose immunological work has been based in academic settings, Bancel cut his teeth as a sales director for Eli Lilly and Company, a US-based firm first set up by an American Civil War veteran and the first to commercially market Salk’s polio vaccine. He then ran its operations in Belgium before ultimately joining Moderna and adding nine zeros to his wealth.
Ultimately too, the questions are not about how, where, why and who finds a vaccine to coronavirus — when is all that matters most.