Heroines of science

I *highly* recommend Vaxxers by Sarah Gilbert and Cath Green, two of the Oxford covid vaccine team. It’s a great read, explains the science really clearly, and is full of interesting detail about the process from the prior research, the realisation of need very early in 2020, all the way through to manufacturing and vaccination campaigns. The two authors have written alternating chapters. A few points will stick with me:

  • Plenty of people saw the pandemic coming but prior preparation to create a vaccine just wasn’t funded adequately. The book is brilliant on the soul-destroying processes of funding applications (oh how I empathised), and how little they are fit for the purpose of rapid development at scale of a new vaccine. Props to the University of Oxford for funding the early stages by putting its own money at risk.
  • Luckily, this team and others around the world did have a ton of prior science and manufacturing experience to draw on, hence the ability to move so quickly.
  • The experience of dealing with media and politics led Sarah Gilbert to write: “Certainly next time – and there will be a next time – we should add some political scientists to the team.” I had a committee-side seat on UKRI funding processes in 2020, and it was an eye-opener to me how few (read: none) of the big science applications included social scientists. It’s starting to change. But the same holds for climate science, or any science addressing big societal problems.
  • There needs to be more global regulatory co-operation, and better preparation over everything from travel to supply chains. It will cost money. But Covid19 was known (before it existed) as Disease X: “Disease Y is coming.” The money will be well spent.
  • The whole tearm worked heroically hard – there’s a nice profile in today’s Guardian.
  • The response from the public to the request for trial volunteers was also heroic. Most people in the UK have been not only pragmatic but in fact brilliant about the vaccine, despite the antics of a small but vocal minority.

I’ve now started on Jeremy Farrar’s Spike, which also looks like being a gripping read.