One summer weekend a year ago, one of the mothers of the Oxford vaccine, the British scientist Catherine Green, went camping with her nine-year-old daughter. There, in the mountains of northwest Wales, he began talking to a woman walking a dog. The unknown hiker began by complaining about the 5G mobile phone network and ended up giving her opinion on the covid vaccination: “I am not saying that it is proven that there is a conspiracy, but I am concerned that we do not know what they put into the vaccines: mercury and other toxic compounds. I don’t trust them. They don’t tell us the truth ”. Green, barefoot and dressed as a Sunday, was literally the head of the Oxford vaccine manufacturing. “I am them,” he replied.
The researcher and her colleague Sarah Gilbert have published a book, Vaxxers (something like “Vaccine Makers,” from Hodder & Stoughton), in which they narrate their frantic race to obtain a vaccine and dismantle the evil image created by the feverish imagination of conspiracy lovers. Green says she was recently divorced, and with her daughter in her care, when the pandemic struck. That day of camping, he detailed to his interlocutor the real ingredients of the vaccine. “I am not what they are worried about: a global elite, in search of power and control. I don’t have Bill Gates’s phone number. I don’t know how to put a sniffer nanorobot in a vaccine. I’m just Cath, the daughter of a dockworker, doing the best I can with my knowledge and my colleagues, and missing hugging my parents, like anyone else, ”the researcher explains in the book.
Catherine Green is the head of the experimental drug factory at the University of Oxford. And Sarah Gilbert is one of the main vaccinologists at the institution. “We are not the pharmaceutical industry nor are we a they. We are two normal people who, together with a team of other hard-working people, did something extraordinary, ”reflects Gilbert. “We do not have servants or a driver or a babysitter and, like the others, we have other matters in our lives,” he emphasizes.
Gilbert and the immunologist Teresa Lambe They designed the vaccine as soon as the genome of the new coronavirus was published, on January 10, 2020, when most of humanity had not even heard of this threat. Gilbert remembers that January 1, when, at home, he read that there were four cases of unknown pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan. She made a mental note and went to the kitchen to do a puzzle with her husband and three children. As the days passed, Gilbert decided to design a vaccine “just in case” as soon as possible.
“I am not from a global elite, looking for power and control. I don’t have Bill Gates’ phone number, ”says Catherine Green
The Oxford vaccine was actually half done. Sarah Gilbert’s team had been using chimpanzee cold adenovirus since 2012 as a vehicle to introduce genetic material from other viruses into the human body and build defenses. The researchers had already developed experimental vaccines against the flu and against another coronavirus, that of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). They were prepared for the arrival of a disease X. All they had to do was add to the formula the genetic information of the new virus, which arrived in their email inbox on January 11, a Saturday morning. Still in her pajamas, Teresa Lambe went to work at home. Within 48 hours, Gilbert and Lambe had chosen the ideal virus sequence fragment to be the main ingredient in a vaccine. On January 22, Gilbert recruited Green to make the drug and test it in humans.
The researchers relate their struggle to obtain funding. “We are the only ones who can do this, so we will have to do it and then fix the money issue,” Gilbert said in a meeting. On the table in his office is a mug with the slogan: “Keep calm and make vaccines” (keep calm and make vaccines). The team decided to go into expenses they couldn’t afford, trusting that money would arrive at some point. “We would ask for forgiveness, not permission,” Gilbert sums up in the book. As humanity became aware of the one that was coming, the financing began to arrive. The Coalition for Innovations in Preparedness for Epidemics – CEPI, founded by the governments of Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the World Economic Forum – put up the first 300,000 euros. In March, the UK Research and Innovation Agency put up another 2.35 million euros. On April 21, the British Government added 23.5 million euros. And the US ended up putting in more than 1,000 million euros to speed up the trials.
Catherine Green recalls that it usually takes several months to get enough volunteers to test an experimental vaccine. In the case of covid, thousands of people took a step forward in just a few hours, despite the fact that it involved committing to uncomfortable tests every week for months. “This reinforces my conviction that people are generally good, generous and altruistic. It is always worth remembering that the vaccine would not have been possible without them, ”Green writes.
Vaccine scientist Sarah Gilbert had triplets and her salary supported the family. “That was pressure,” he recalls.
Vaxxers describes a scientific odyssey. Sarah Gilbert says that, having been the mother of triplets 20 years earlier, she was used to big challenges. “Suddenly I became the main breadwinner in a family of five, sleeping for a couple of hours every night. That was pressure, ”he says. What they were not prepared for was the hoaxes that began to sprout everywhere. On April 23, the microbiologist Elisa granato, from Oxford University, volunteered to be one of the first people to receive the vaccine. Immediately, the lie circulated on social networks that had died. “Who uses their time to invent something like that?” Exclaims Green.
In the heat of the hoaxes, anti-vaccine movements emerged, which even manifested in front of the Gilbert and Green laboratories. “I don’t understand anti-vaccines. Why would someone ideologically oppose a public health measure that is safe, cost-effective, saves millions of lives, and prevents people from having to live with a disability caused by diseases such as polio, smallpox, and covid? ” Gilbert asks.
Scientists also encountered unexpected resistance: some religions. The Oxford vaccine contains 50,000 million viral particles in a dose of half a milliliter, with minute amounts of other harmless compounds that serve to stabilize the product, such as common salt and sucrose. There is also 0.002 milligrams of ethanol in each dose. The British Association of Islamic Medicine ruled that it was not enough alcohol to be banned for Muslims.
“Disinformation costs lives. People who could have been vaccinated were not vaccinated ”, laments Catherine Green
In the vaccine manufacturing process, the University of Oxford and its industrial partner AstraZeneca use HEK-293 cells, derived from others originally obtained from the kidney of a fetus aborted for therapeutic reasons in 1972. They are cells that multiply without limit and are They have been used for decades to produce vaccines, for example against chicken pox and rubella. All these cells come from that single fetus donated after a legal abortion. The Vatican has shown its rejection of the technique, but on December 21 it decreed that it was morally acceptable to get vaccinated, Gilbert celebrates.
Vaxxers it also recounts the clash of the scientists with the international press, at a time when, as Green says, the vaccine became “the only issue in the world.” The paparazzi appeared on campus. If the researchers commented on their results, they were accused of lacking rigor for not communicating them through the usual scientific channels. If they were silent, they were singled out for their lack of transparency. At the end of January 2021, the German newspaper Handelsblatt published, without any proof, that the Oxford vaccine was only 8% effective in older people. It was a lie, but even the French president, Emmanuel Macron, repeated the hoax. “This kind of misinformation […] it costs lives. People who could have been vaccinated did not get vaccinated. And some of them would die, ”Green laments. The reality is that the Oxford vaccine has an efficacy of more than 90% against severe covid.