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29 June 2022

We didn’t do enough to understand vaccine sceptics, says Oxford inventor

Professor Sarah Gilbert says scientists need to work together on tackling hesitancy before the next pandemic.

By Sarah Dawood

The social and behavioural science that could have predicted and tackled the rash of anti-vaccine rhetoric during the Covid-19 pandemic was “missing from the response”, one of the inventors of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has said.

Professor Sarah Gilbert said at the New Statesman Politics Live conference on Tuesday (June 28) that there was a lack of research into and understanding of why people did not want to take the vaccine. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was the most widely used Covid-19 vaccine globally.

Gilbert, who is a professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, added that during future pandemics experts from different disciplines must work together to better understand everything about a novel virus’ spread. “We need to think about why some people were hesitant about taking the vaccine or seeking input when they were starting to become ill,” she said.

She called for reform of the research funding process, and said that she spent a lot of her time applying for grants rather than carrying out scientific research. Instead of “bitty piecemeal grants”, the government should fund larger research institutions or groups made up of experts from different disciplines, she said – such as vaccinology, social science and diagnostics – who could work together more effectively and build on lessons learnt from Covid-19.

For example, rather than having “20 companies” make lateral flow tests, just the most successful test technology should be used, she said. “Lots of companies produced lateral flow tests, but many didn’t work. What was it about the ones that were really good that made them so successful? We should be applying that to develop diagnostic tests for other viruses that cause outbreaks.”

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She added that it was “really problematic” that, due to Brexit, academics who have received grants under the EU’s Horizon programme – a €95.5bn research and innovation fund running from 2021 to 2027 – may no longer receive them or may need to move to a different university or organisation to carry on with their research. “It’s very worrying to hear,” she said.

There also needs to be more focus from the government on attracting people into academic careers, she added. She said it was “very hard to recruit” into research roles because “academic salaries are not high and there is not a lot of job security”. “We’re not seeing any change in terms of level of investment,” she said. “It’s still down to us to attract young people to work in science. A lot of innovation comes out of the universities and if we want that to continue to happen, we need to ensure people are there to provide that work when it’s really needed.”

[ See also: The NHS is under strain from Covid once again ]

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