Injection of fresh talent

Overseas-education | Crystal Wu 16 Feb 2021

With vaccines coming to the rescue, it seems that the world can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel that is the coronavirus pandemic.

In collaboration with Italian brand Bulgari, the University of Oxford Jenner Institute has recently announced its inaugural Bulgari Scholarships to support the effort.

"Bulgari vows not only to contribute to the fight against Covid-19, but also to work with the global leaders in medical sciences at Oxford University to nurture the most talented minds of tomorrow," said president and CEO Jean-Christophe Babin.

"I am honored and proud to have the opportunity to support Oxford in this common goal of eradicating viruses and stopping future pandemics in their tracks."

The first Bulgari scholars are Cameron Bissett and Rebecca Makinson, who have just started their doctoral degree with the university in late 2020 related to coronavirus vaccines.

"I am investigating the ways we can optimize and adapt vaccine regimens designed to protect against SARS-CoV-2," said Bissett.

Makinson, meanwhile, aims to "seek answers to key questions such as if age or prior exposure to other coronaviruses influences an individual's immune response to vaccination."

She was ecstatic when she found out she had been awarded the scholarship. "Often, funding can be a barrier to research, and the scholarship has provided me with the freedom to pursue research in a field that I am passionate about and which I hope will be of global relevance during this and future pandemics."

Bissett shares Makinson's view on the difficulty of acquiring research funding.

"The scholarship will enable me to conduct important immunology research with comfortable access to all the scientific tools I need," he said.

"This will in effect allow me to approach my DPhil in a truly investigative manner and contribute to the field."

He will be working under the supervision of Teresa Lambe, who is involved in the clinical trial of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is one of the three vaccines that the Hong Kong government has ordered.

"The Oxford vaccine, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, is a viral vector vaccine," explained Bissett. "This next-generation vaccine type safely delivers the information required to produce the novel coronavirus spike protein into our cells."

Simply put, the harmless viruses in the jab carry into our bodies the genetic materials that make some cells grow to "look like" the Covid-19 virus.

As a result, our bodies will mistake the bogus as the real deal, and have an immune response and immunological memory without actually having the virus in our bodies.

In the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the vector virus is a weakened adenovirus that causes the common cold in chimpanzees that has been genetically modified so it cannot grow in the human body.

Due to the fact that one vector virus can be applied for different pathogens, the technology can be applied to different types of illnesses. The team behind the technology, which includes Lambe, had already been developing candidate vaccines against other viruses before the pandemic, such as Zika and MERS, which are also types of coronaviruses.

"We've been working on the platform technology for a number of years now, so we had something we could use off the shelf to develop a vaccine when the virus first appeared - importantly it was a platform that was well understood," explained Lambre.

But the road to success is never easy.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had to pause its global trial in mid-September due to a number of adverse reactions and safety concerns.

Another road bump was a dosing error during the third phase clinical trial and puzzling findings when patients given a one-and-a-half vaccine dose saw better immunology than those who got two full doses. A new scientific paper by the team, despite being preprint and not having gone through formal peer review yet, reveals that this may be due to a longer period between doses.

Other snags include production delays and criticism over a lack of sufficient data of efficacy for over 65s. As a result, Germany's health authority has advised against using the vaccine on those over 65.

South Africa has also recently delayed the rollout of the vaccine due to trial data that shows that it is less effective against the South African variant 501Y.V2.

Nonetheless, countries like the United Kingdom, India and South Korea have approved the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Lambre understands that with any new medicine, the general public, including those from Hong Kong, will have their doubts, but she assured that they had not skipped any steps in their research.

Clinical trial data has been collected from nearly 24,000 volunteers from the UK, Brazil and South Africa. "At no point have we bypassed any of the normal steps that we would take to develop a new vaccine," she said.

Makinson added that the speed with which the vaccines were developed was due to the fact that the scientific community understood the urgent need for effective vaccines for protecting the vulnerable and returning to normal, which led to numerous global collaborations.

"This urgency, combined with increased funding, a huge scale-up of manufacturing capacity, and the preexisting experience and expertise in novel vaccine technologies led to the record-breaking times from concept to clinic that we have seen this year," she added.

Said Lambe: "The development of this trial has also been accelerated by a lot of hard work. The people I work with, including Rebecca and Cameron, have often had to work long hours and sacrifice a lot working on this project, and I'm really proud of the efforts we've made."

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is set to arrive in Hong Kong mid-year, but no application for emergency use here has yet been received.

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