Having just finished VAXXERS, the book by Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green on how they designed, made and validated the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine, it is clear that much needs to be done to produce vaccines quicker.
It is not the scientists who take the time. “We designed the vaccine in a few days in January and made the first batch in 65 days,” writes Professor Gregory.
The first volunteer was vaccinated in September. Mass vaccinations started in December.
This was possible because the speed at which the disease was spreading alarmed the authorities so much that they permitted the unprecedented practice of undertaking a multi-stage process of funding, manufacturing, trials and approvals to be done simultaneously instead of sequentially.
Without a crisis, points out Professor Gregory, it frequently takes up to a year to hear back whether a request for vaccine research funding has been approved while only 1 in 3 applications get approved.
“It would be terrible to have gone through everything we have all gone through, and then find that the economic losses that have been sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness,” writes Dr Green, “it seems to me that there are three broad areas that limited our response to Covid-19, and that we need to improve in order to be in a better place the next time: infrastructure (including research and manufacturing), systems (including surveillance, stockpiling and travel bans) and global cooperation and collaboration.”
The level of funding the Oxford research teams asked for to pursue vaccine development before Covid – a few million pounds – “look laughably tiny compared with the hundreds of billions we have had to spend on fighting this pandemic,” adds Green.
This is the lesson of the pandemic – be prepared for the next time – and, say the VAXXERS, a next time is inevitable.