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Governments not preparing for future pandemics, leading vaccine expert warns

·4-min read

One of the world’s best known scientists is struggling to get funding to help prevent future pandemics.

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, whose work led to the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 jab, said she is “waiting” for funding to look into vaccines for other infectious diseases.

She said work must be done to prepare for future pandemics, adding that small amounts of investment now could potentially save billions of pounds in the long run.

She agreed that the lack of investment from governments and other research funding sources shows they have not learned lessons about the importance of pandemic preparedness.

She told a Royal Society of Medicine webinar: “We’re still trying to raise funds to develop other vaccines that we were working on before the pandemic against diseases that have caused outbreaks in the past and will cause outbreaks in the future – Nipah virus, lassa fever virus and Mers coronavirus were three that I’m working on and still trying to raise funds to work on.”

Dame Sarah said there is still support for her Covid work, adding: “But when we try to return to projects that we were working on earlier and move them forward, we thought we’d be able to go faster but actually we’re still waiting to rise the funds to get those projects moving again.”

The professor of vaccinology at Oxford’s Jenner Institute and Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine added: “We do need to start planning for a future pandemic.

“I don’t want to depress people by making them think that this is all going to happen again – it’s really something that only a few people should have to think about.

“Those of us who work on pandemic preparedness really want to be able to put all plans in place so that we can respond better next time, so that we have a faster response, and maybe have the opportunity to stop a new virus spreading at the stage where it is an outbreak, rather than a pandemic.

“We need to be able to respond to outbreaks as soon as they’re identified – vaccinate the local population, contain that outbreak and stop it going any further.

“Because with all of these outbreaks, they will spread if we can’t respond to them and that’s why we need to have the vaccines for these other viruses that we already know about so that we’re able to bring those outbreaks to an end really quickly and then they don’t spread to multiple countries and they don’t become a pandemic.

“There’s less cost in containing everything if we do it really early.”

Asked if this suggests that funders and governments have not learned lessons about the importance of pandemic preparedness, Dame Sarah said: “Yes, I think it does, and we should really be working now to do everything we can to prepare for a potential future pandemic, while we have all the knowledge.

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert
Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert’s work led to the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine (Steve Parsons/PA)

“I think it’s really important that we do it now – by spending a small amount of investment now potentially means that we don’t have to have the massive costs of a pandemic at a later stage.”

Getting a vaccine through a phase two trial and making a stockpile for emergency use would cost “under £100 million, compared to the billions of billions that have been spent on trying to respond to the pandemic – so being prepared is going to save us money”, she added.

Dame Sarah said the virus which causes Covid-19 will eventually become like the coronaviruses which circulate widely and cause the common cold.

“We already live with four different human coronaviruses that we don’t really ever think about very much and eventually Sars-CoV-2 will become one of those,” she said.

“It’s just a question of how long it’s going to take to get there and what measures we’re going to have to take to manage it in the meantime.”

Meanwhile, she said the very rare blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca jab have not been seen in the same rates in other parts of the world.

She also suggested that primary work on a tweaked vaccine to combat the Beta variant of the virus only gave a “slightly better” immune response than the original vaccine, when given as a third dose to people who had already had two jabs of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the data is still being collected.

In June, then health secretary Matt Hancock said the Government was in commercial discussions with the pharmaceutical giant over the variant vaccine.

Dame Sarah was also asked which of her titles she is most proud of, and said: “Professor, definitely.”

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