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Sarah Gilbert has shown the value of scientists who understand politics

The leader of the Oxford vaccine trial recognises that people want clarity, not bluster.

By Ailbhe Rea

A “milestone” has been reached in the Oxford vaccine trial, after the treatment was found to produce a strong immune response and no major side effects in a phase-one trial of 1,077 healthy volunteers. It remains to be seen whether the immune response prompted by the vaccine is sufficient to avoid infection (trials are already underway to that end), but it is a cautious good news story, with the potential to become such a good news story it almost doesn’t bear thinking about. 

Beyond the huge significance of a potential working vaccine, it is worth reflecting on the politics of this treatment’s development and celebrating the great politicker of the moment, Professor Sarah Gilbert.

You may remember when Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, co-founder of Vaccitech and leader of the Oxford vaccine trial, first appeared in our lives. It was mid-April, and she appeared on our TV screens with a series of quite frankly dazzling media interviews, in which she amplified the Oxford vaccine trial’s headline announcement that the vaccine could be ready by September, provided an almost unprecedented level of detail and clarity about the nature of the virus, and said exactly what she and her team needed from the public and government in order to make it work.

“What we need from government is support to help us accelerate the manufacturing,” she told Andrew Marr, explaining, as clear as day, the need for financial support to allow companies to make the transition towards manufacturing the new vaccine, with the new quality controls, equipment and training such a transition would involve. The buzz around the project and the public-facing appeal for further government support effectively bounced the government into providing the extra £84 million requested for the manufacture of the vaccine – with, of course, no guarantee it would work. It soon followed that a deal was struck, with financial support from the government, between Oxford and UK-based pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, so that the latter could have 30 million doses for the UK by September if it passes clinical trials.

The fact that the government came through with further funding, the vaccine found a commercial partner, and enough members of the public signed up to volunteer for the trial shouldn’t overshadow the successful politicking by Gilbert in securing them. The eventual probability of the above was basically inevitable, but I think she can take credit for the speed with which they came about and the goodwill and momentum behind the Oxford trial in particular.

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Gilbert has taught us something of a lesson over these past few months, and not simply in her detailed answers about vaccine development. She isn’t a politician, but she has real politics, in her proven ability to manoeuvre other actors. She is someone who appreciates that communicating what you’re doing is just as important as doing it, when success is contingent on the buy-in of others, in politics as in vaccine development.

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She understands better than many of our current politicians (with maybe the exception of Rishi Sunak) that frankness, caveats and nuance, tempered with optimism, play better that airbrushing and bluster, and ultimately inspire greater confidence. She has been the adult in the room and the accidental leadership figure the moment demands, embodying the competence, command of the detail, vision and, crucially, hope, that people have needed to see.