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Feature The BMJ Interview

How the Oxford-AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine was made

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 12 January 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n86

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  1. Elisabeth Mahase, clinical reporter
  1. The BMJ
  1. emahase{at}

Andrew Pollard has been leading the Oxford vaccine clinical trials in the UK, Brazil, and South Africa. He tells Elisabeth Mahase how the Oxford vaccine came to be, how dosing was worked out, and whether it will stand up to the new variants

Andrew Pollard was in a French taxi when he realised what was coming.

On his way to a meeting to present his group’s research on typhoid, he happened to share a ride to the airport with John Edmunds of the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and they discussed a new virus emerging in China.

“He had a fairly catastrophic view of what was likely to happen to the world from that point,” says Pollard. “That was an incredibly chilling moment because I realised that our lives were going to change completely during 2020. Straight away I was thinking that we needed a vaccine.”

A multi-award winner, Pollard has become one of the faces of the world’s pandemic vaccine effort. As chair of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and the European Medicines Agency’s scientific advisory group on vaccines, he knew better than anyone the size of the task ahead. But, as an experienced climber (he was deputy leader of the successful 1994 British Mount Everest Medical Expedition), he knows that mountains are there to be conquered.

The world is obviously worried about the new variants that have emerged in the UK and South Africa. How much would the virus need to mutate to make a vaccine ineffective?

The vaccines that are currently in late stage development, or that are authorised for use, use a large part of this spike protein, which is a very big protein. So, the immune response is against lots of different bits of that protein. This means that, to completely escape, the virus has to mutate quite a lot—so this may give some advantages against escape happening in the short term.

Mutants can arise that escape from the vaccine when there’s …

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