Two Irish scientists at Oxford University were honoured on Friday as part of the British Queen’s Birthday Honours for their services to science and public health.
Prof Adrian Hill, Director of The Jenner Institute and co-director at the Oxford Martin Programme on Vaccines, has been awarded the highest Queen’s honour, becoming an honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE).
Associate Professor Teresa Lambe was appointed an honorary Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her service to science and public health.
A Principal Investigator at The Jenner Institute, she oversaw the university’s Covid-19 vaccine programme which led to the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine which has now been administered to nearly half a billion people worldwide.
‘Encouraging for Irish science’
Prof Hill, originally from Ranelagh in Dublin, said he was “delighted” to receive the award that reflects the efforts of many colleagues at the Jenner Institute. He said the recognition of the work of Irish scientists in Britain in this way is “encouraging for Irish science”.
He praised the “extraordinary efforts” of all those who worked on the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine programme as well as a sequence of students and researchers over the last 25 years.
“Their efforts in designing, developing and clinically testing vaccines against globally important diseases allowed us to select the most effective vaccine type to address the pandemic,” he said.
Prof Hill has also been involved in the development of a range of different vaccines for illnesses including malaria, tuberculosis and Ebola. His main vaccine programme has developed a particularly promising potential vaccine for malaria, which in a recent trial in children in sub-Saharan Africa proved to be 77 per cent effective.
The Trinity College Dublin medicine graduate said he hopes the honours awarded to Oxford’s researchers encourage aspiring scientists to consider a career in vaccinology which has “ ever-widening life-saving applications, as illustrated so well over the last year”.
Great year for public awareness of science
“Last year science was cool for kids… It has been a great year for public awareness of science and public understanding of vaccines. You don’t just magic them up like they do in that movie Contagion,” he added.
However, Covid-19 has allowed vaccinologists such as himself to be able to move vaccines forward quickly at a speed that is “totally unprecedented”.
“It is the sort of thing we would love to do with our other vaccines, particularly malaria, which is my own interest,” he said.
Prof Teresa Lambe said it was “a huge privilege” to receive the honour and a “little surreal” for her work to have been catapulted into the spotlight during the pandemic.
“It has been a very intense year and a half and involved an awful lot from an awful lot of people… I don’t put my head above the parapet to look around and see the impact we are having because that can be quite overwhelming,” she said.
The University College Dublin graduate had been researching and developing vaccines for around 14 years prior to the coronavirus pandemic, with most of her work going largely unnoticed by the general public.
“These were vaccines for diseases most people had never heard of,” she said, adding that there was a perception among some that vaccine development was “a little stale”.
That all changed when coronavirus consumed the lives of all, and her team’s work has not only been in the public eye but in their arms as well.
“That is great… I want to be able to engage and explain to people what I do. You cannot be seen as scientists in an ivory tower,” she said.
When there is a hesitancy among some people or nervousness about the vaccines, Prof Lambe believes it is important that the developers are available to answer questions.
“I didn’t appreciate how important that was until this year. Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations save lives,” she said, adding that the vials are useless if they are not being administered. Unable to visit her parents in Ireland since Christmas 2019, Prof Lambe is as grateful as anyone that the vaccine rollouts will enable people to safely meet up with family once again.
Going forward, Prof Lambe said she hopes the scientific community and wider population will remember the achievements that are possible when people work together.
“We can make sure that future generations don’t need to make the same sacrifices that we have,” she added.
Still, the work is not slowing for the professor, who is working on vaccines for other diseases as well as adaptations to ensure the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is efficacious against emerging variants. Her team are also investigating how long the immune response prompted by vaccination lasts.
“I had this perception that when there would be a rest, but the variants keep us occupied,” she added.
Prof Hill said he doesn’t expect new variants to continue to emerge in the “long-term”, as he believes there is a limit to its ability to diversify.
Good at escaping immunity
“The virus can only mutate in so many ways to become a virus that is very good at escaping immunity. I don’t expect we will be here in three years’ time with a new variant emerging and we are still trying to vaccinate everybody against it,” he said.
Once the population is vaccinated to an adequate level it is difficult for new strains to emerge, he said, adding that England is close to useful herd immunity with antibodies present in around 80 per cent of the population. There is evidence that strong immune responses from vaccination cover the Delta variant, he added.
“That is probably why the Indian variant, even though it is spreading, and it does spread fast, is not causing huge increases in hospital cases… But it has to be watched,” he added.
Prof Hill predicted that the Oxford laboratory will need to make one new vaccine strain to cater to new variants of the virus.
“The choice in the last few months has been the South African strain. Moderna has done that and AstraZeneca has made a South Africa vaccine strain. Whether we need to make an Indian strain or not is still to be decided,” he said.