You are working on a much-anticipated Covid-19 vaccine at Oxford. When did you start on that?
Back in early January, I was watching what was happening in Wuhan. My brother lived in China, so I was particularly interested in the public health aspect as well as the virus.
Then when the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus was released on Friday January 10th, I spent that weekend looking at how to design a vaccine against it. At Oxford we already had a platform or carrier for vaccines, so we ordered the materials we needed and we made a candidate vaccine against the Covid-19 virus to a standard where it could be tested in the lab by mid-February.
It sounds like you hit the ground running.
I’ve been working on vaccines for a long time, including researching vaccines for Ebola, for flu, for Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever virus and for another coronavirus called MERS.
So yes, we had built up a lot of expertise and collaborators and technology. And people immediately wanted to work together on this. You hear talk of a competitive “race” for a Covid-19 vaccine, but my experience has been that researchers want to pitch in together and share information and expertise.
It has all been happening very quickly, as it needs to. What do people ask you about that process?
We went from designing a candidate vaccine to putting into people for testing within 103 days, which is extremely fast. A lot of people ask about how we can safeguard the safety of the process at speed. The answer is that the investment is there to do things in parallel rather than sequentially.
Normally, you finish early testing before preparing to make vaccine for later tests, and you finish those later tests before preparing to manufacture at scale. But for this one, the investment is being made upfront so that things can move rapidly.
We have also found that necessary steps like regulatory processes and ethical approval can happen more quickly, because more frequent meetings are being set up to facilitate the rigorous review, we don’t have to wait long for them.
What is keeping you busy right now?
At the moment, the candidate vaccine is in large-scale clinical trials, which means that thousands of people are taking it. We have lots of people working on this, some on the clinical side and some on the lab side.
My role is overseeing the lab side, analysing blood samples from people who have been given the candidate vaccine. I oversee the team measuring the level of antibodies in a person’s blood. Antibodies are a part of the body’s immune system, and they can bind the virus and stop the infection.
When you were growing up in Co Kildare, did you know you were going to study science?
At school I often had my hand up, asking questions all the time. I wanted to know how things work, and how they interact. I went on to study pharmacology and molecular genetics at University College Dublin, and then I did a PhD there with Prof Finian Martin, looking at the biology of how cells develop and die.
I moved to Oxford in January 2002, and I started off in fundamental biological research, but I wanted to work in an area that was closer to the clinic. I wanted to see research translate into medical benefit, so I moved into vaccines.
What or who has most informed your approach to science?
When I was doing my PhD at UCD, one of my friends there was a post-doctoral researcher called Dr Ruth McMahon, and she had a huge impact on me. She was a person of huge integrity and I really admired the way she conducted herself and stood up for fairness and doing things properly. Sadly, she died a few years ago, and I still think about her a lot. She remains a big influence, and I try to live up to her standards.
What has it been like working on the Covid-19 vaccine project to date?
Intense! The hours are long and you really have to be rigorous in this line of work. When we were making the candidate vaccine back in February, we had collaborators internationally who were involved in testing the vaccine and I remember a lot of insomnia, waiting for emails at all hours so you could get that information to the right people and proceed to the next step. It is a marathon, but you want to get it done as quickly and safely as you can.
What keeps you going through the marathon?
I love science and working on vaccines, and I am lucky that this means I get to do something constructive in this pandemic. I want to help, and that keeps me going.
And when you do manage to get a break, what do you like to do?
I think if you had asked me back in 2019, I would have said that I like to get out for a jog. Now though, the moment I get a chance, I hang out with my husband and kids. My opportunities to do that in 2020 have been rarer.