Book review: Extraordinary story of ordinary people saving lives in a pandemic in Vaxxers

Vaxxers is a quintessential feel-good read in several ways
Book review: Extraordinary story of ordinary people saving lives in a pandemic in Vaxxers

Professor of Vaccinology at the Jenner Institute within the University of Oxford, Sarah Gilbert was, and remains, the hero of the pandemic. Picture: PA

DURING the lockdown days of 2020 I invited Sarah Gilbert to my television screen on a regular basis. Looking exhausted but speaking in calm neutral tones she explained to a beleaguered world how she and her fellows were developing a vaccine which would soon to be ready to rollout. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine needed to go from proven efficacy in trials to actual effectiveness in the population. For me Gilbert was, and remains, the hero of the pandemic.

As Professor of Vaccinology at the Jenner Institute within the University of Oxford Gilbert was well placed to lead the race to protect people from unfriendly viruses. She had been active in fighting Ebola in African countries and had learnt lessons from that. What became known as Covid-19 was less of a death threat to patients than Ebola which kills 50% of those it infects. But it was more difficult to contain with its asymptomatic, and thus unidentified, victims.

Alongside her worked Catherine Green, a specialist in manufacturing vaccines for clinical trials. In Vaxxers the two women, with ghost writer Deborah Crewe, alternate their accounts of the work they needed to complete to bring a vaccine to immunisation centres.

It is an extraordinary story of professional determination and excellence. Before sufficient funding could be obtained, they chose to venture forward, risking their careers if the enterprise failed and the university had to pick up a very large bill. But they were experienced and confident in their ability to succeed.

They knew that the virus was racing, out of control, and that they were two of the few people who could give it a run for its money.

It took a year from the suspicion that there might be a something nasty spreading from person to person, to immunising masses at temporary inoculation centres in the UK and elsewhere with the AstraZeneca Oxford vaccination. Inaccurate and oddly opposing stories emerged in Europe — that the UK was grabbing all the vaccines, that it was not safe for older people, that it would cause blood clots in the brain — meaning that a life-saving injection became surrounded by, and tainted with, suspicion.

Vaxxers: the inside story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the race against the virus by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green
Vaxxers: the inside story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the race against the virus by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green

Other countries were envious of the UK in that it had an effective vaccination programme but some criticised the safety and efficacy of AstraZeneca and banned its use. Europeans, their sleeves rolled up in anticipation, bemoaned their leaders’ stupidity, and longed to queue for hours to get a jab. Why would their politicians want to destroy faith in a medication which was both cheaper and more practicable than others on the market? And that is just governments. The anti-vaxxers had hardly begun their activism at that point.

Each chapter is introduced by figures: A date, the number of confirmed cases, and the number of confirmed deaths. It is sobering to read through the journals which chronical the challenges, delays, and disappointments as well as the ecstasies, successes, and victories, with the constant reminder of the power of the coronavirus. When the authors completed their account in February 2021 there had been more than 110m confirmed cases, nearly two and a half million deaths but, amazingly, almost 200m vaccinations.

Vaxxers is a quintessential feel-good read in several ways: it is important to know how viruses procreate and how vaccines can help destroy them; it is important to be reminded that science must be funded — not only to deal with known threats but also to prevail against new and frightening diseases; and it is important to understand how these two women, along with thousands of other researchers throughout the world, are also ordinary people with personal lives who experience the same routine problems, crisis moments and individual joys as everyone else. Vaxxers tells a tale that links the quotidian to the extraordinary. Bravo Sarah. Bravo Cath. Thank you for making the world a safer place.

Vaxxers: The inside story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the race against the virus by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green

Hodder and Stoughton, pb €14.99

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