Vaccine production heroes

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone an overdue spotlight on the all too often unheralded work of vaccine scientists. Observe spoke to Brookes alumni involved in the development and production of the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines.

“I heard about cases of pneumonia in China on Christmas Day, 2019 and immediately thought this is something we are going to be interested in. At first, we thought of doing a research project just to see how quickly we could develop a vaccine. But it quickly turned into something that was needed in real life – and as quickly as possible!”

“it quickly turned into something that was needed in real life – and as quickly as possible!”

Emma Bolam ’92 has worked at the Jenner Institute, which is part of the University of Oxford and named after the creator of the world’s first vaccine, since 2005. But she has not experienced anything like the Covid-19 pandemic before, either in the urgency to develop an effective vaccine or the challenges of working safely.

Emma is Head of Production at the Jenner Institute’s Clinical BioManufacturing Facility. Her team supply large-scale manufacturers of vaccines with the starting materials they require, in a process Emma likens to providing the starter for making sourdough bread. For the Covid-19 vaccine they used a chimpanzee virus, modified so it cannot grow in humans, to create the starting materials.

Unprecedented pressure

For Covid-19, there was unprecedented pressure for quick results. 

Emma at work in the lab

Emma explains, “It has been completely different from work on other vaccines. After making the virus starting material we began production of the vaccine on 6 March 2020 and had our first batch of vaccines for clinical trials ready by 2 April. It usually takes four months but we did it in under one month.”

And this was done whilst adapting to a radically different work environment in order to stay safe from Covid-19.

“We were desperate for nobody to get sick. So we had to plan everything to the n’th degree to ensure everything was done safely but also as quickly as possible. 

“When you’re working in a laboratory you often need multiple people to check what you’re doing. So it’s not possible for people to work from home all the time. Fortunately we do have a reasonable amount of space, and because of the nature of the work we are used to wearing PPE. But it was hard at times.”

“We were desperate for nobody to get sick”

Kevin Jones ’06, Stability Group Leader at Lonza, a pharma and biotech company who are manufacturing the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, agrees:

“Thousands of people across the globe began a whole new way of working, under incredibly stressful conditions and with workloads many times greater than before the pandemic. Our site has switched from everyone on site, all of the time to essential work only, leaving once any hands-on work is completed.”

A nervous wait

After Emma’s team had produced the first batch of vaccine for the trial, there was a three-week testing, approval and safety checking process before the first volunteer could be vaccinated on 23 April.

“We knew it was safe but having produced the vaccine so quickly, I was feeling very nervous – we didn’t know if it was actually going to work!

“Once the vaccine was handed over to the trial my team didn’t have any further direct involvement with it. So we were waiting for results just like everyone else. The first official results came out in November – and they were very positive, people were showing good immune responses. So it was then licensed by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) in December.

“We’re just a small team and it was a tremendously proud achievement for us. We even got a visit from Prince William!”

The work continues

The record-breaking development of vaccines is playing a vital role in the world’s response to Covid-19 – saving many lives and enabling communities to progress beyond lockdowns. Scientists who have contributed to the vaccine programme are among the true heroes of the pandemic.

“the work… contributes to happier, healthier lives for friends, family and future generations”

With the virus unlikely to go away completely, and new variants continuing to evolve, the need for further vaccine development and production is essential. In order to bounce back from Covid-19, society is going to continue to be dependent on the hard work and specialist expertise of scientists like Emma and Kevin for the foreseeable future.

As Kevin says, “The drive that gets us out of bed every day, the drive to get the work done no matter what barriers are thrown our way is the same for thousands of people across the industry, the knowledge that the work you do today contributes to happier, healthier lives for friends, family and future generations.”

Emma Bolam studied Environmental Biology at Oxford Polytechnic, graduating in 1992. Kevin Jones studied Biology and Ecology at Oxford Brookes University, graduating in 2006.

Photography by John Cairns