REVIEW: Vaxxers by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green

In brief: The story of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine by the women who made the vaccine.

The good: Great insight into how research works and dispels any myths and rumours about the vaccine and trials.

The not-so-good: My work involves COVID-19, so sometimes it was hard to read about it at night too.

Why I chose it: I’ve found it really insightful to read about pandemics and vaccines over the last year. Thanks to Hachette for the copy.

Year: 2021

Pages: 336

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hachette)

Setting: Oxford, England

Rating: 10 out of 10

Last year, I read pandemic non-fiction to arm myself with knowledge. This year, it’s all about vaccines. What better reading than the story of how the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine was made than through two of the integral people working on it? Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green tell how it all happened in alternating chapters from the first whispers of a new infectious disease to preparing for ‘disease Y’, the next pandemic. It’s easy to read and incredibly interesting. Plus, it acts as a mythbuster, telling the truth around common concerns with the vaccine.

Sarah, Cath and the whole Oxford team have been working on vaccine research for decades. They had used the adenovirus ‘base’ of the vaccine for other diseases, such as Ebola, in human clinical trials but scientific research is a stop-start process. That’s why vaccines usually take so long, because you need to apply for funding, wait, get money and then do a study. Publish the results, then start the whole funding process again. It’s all about money, with no compromises on safety. So when the novel coronavirus 2019 came around, they were prepared. Once the genome of the virus was sequenced, they could start work at an advanced stage because they had their vaccine base, and knew which part of the virus to use. They also had studies in animals and humans, but that didn’t make it easy. These people worked incredibly hard for months, while in lockdown and facing increasing media scrutiny and hype.

The story of how the vaccine is made, from the small flasks used at Oxford to the giant ones procured by AstraZeneca, is fascinating. It’s likened to baking bread, and it has very routine steps whether you’re baking one loaf or 100. It is a little science-y, but if you read a little more slowly, it’s clear how precise the process as. The book also explains the details of the regulatory process, which involves a lot of testing for quality and consistency, plus a heck of a lot of data. Nothing goes ahead without a lot of evidence and double- and triple-checking. The pair also dispel a lot of vaccine myths, such as the way they could accelerate parts of the process (nothing sneaky there, just grants of money to continue). They also review the reported adverse effects and explain how the trial data involved different doses (it’s got to do with calculating virus numbers) and different spacings between doses. I really wish I’d read this before I puzzled over the protocol that was published, as it was clear and made much more sense!

No matter your opinion on vaccines, Vaxxers is testament that science can and does save lives, especially when adequate funding and brilliant minds are combined.

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