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Dhaka Tribune

‘There will always be pandemics’

Dr Maliha Mannan Ahmed, director of Gemcon Group and founder of Organikare, sat down with Gilbert at the Dhaka Lit Fest to delve more into the expert’s work in the field of vaccinology

Update : 13 Jan 2023, 09:42 AM

Dhaka Lit Fest 2023 had some illustrious names from around the world in attendance, among whom was present Oxford University professor of vaccinology, Sarah Gilbert. The English vaccinologist was responsible for developing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine along with her team, which helped a significant portion of the world to combat the deadly Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Maliha Mannan Ahmed, director of Gemcon Group and founder of Organikare, sat down with Gilbert at the Dhaka Lit Fest to delve more into the expert's work in the field of vaccinology.

You read about four people in China having a strange pneumonia, and began developing a vaccine within two weeks against a new pathogen. What triggered this response, before the pandemic was even announced?

We had been working on vaccine development for some years. I had done some work on the influenza vaccine, as we believe influenza will cause a pandemic some time in the future, and I had been thinking about the challenges of that along with the Ebola outbreak in 2014. So we began working on vaccines for a number of different viruses, and the only way to do that without spending a lot of money or time is to use what we call a platform technology -- where we make a vaccine that can adapt to be made into different vaccines against lots of different viruses.

When the virus was declared to be the coronavirus, it was fairly easy for us to get on that, since we had been working on a Mers vaccine. Our tests showed that the design of that vaccine could be used to build a new vaccine very quickly.

Do you particularly think about what immunity you are looking at?

What we have learned over the years of working on vaccines for different diseases is that if we take the complete coding sequence for the whole of the protein that we want to raise an immune response against, that protein is made in the cells in our body after vaccination in the way that it would be if we were infected. We don't change very much, as it might not work the same way in that case; we just put an extra sequence of the protein, which means our immune system sees something that looks like the virus that we're trying to protect against.

Why is it advised for recently Covid-19 infected individuals to wait three months for the booster shot?

Being infected after getting a vaccine is much like getting a booster shot and it will improve your immune response, so you don't really need a vaccine for three months. The clinical trials have shown that you get a better response if there are longer gaps in between vaccine doses.

Despite a three-year lockdown, China has not developed herd immunity, and the virus is apparently still prevalent there. Do you think they need a different kind of vaccine?

What we've noticed is that the Chinese vaccines have worked for people from other countries who have received them. It is possible to give the recipients of the single-dose Chinese vaccines a booster dose with a different technology and see good results. I think that would be the best thing to do at this point.

There's evidence of a new variant of the coronavirus. With a large portion of the population vaccinated, particularly in Bangladesh, do you think there is a chance of another outbreak?

I don't expect it to cause major difficulties. What we've seen is that with each dose of the vaccine, people's immune responses increase and also broaden, so it could still combat other variants.

Are men more susceptible to the coronavirus than women?

Early on, it did seem like there was more susceptibility in men, but as we've gathered more data, that has not been proven.

Is AstraZeneca planning to develop more vaccines for the newer strains?

That's a decision for AstraZeneca to make. However, there isn't any good evidence that suggests that the changed sequences of the vaccines are more effective than the original ones.

Is scaling up a factor you prioritize when developing a vaccine?

Absolutely yes. There wouldn't be any point in developing a vaccine that works well in a small clinical trial but is unsuitable or expensive to manufacture on a large scale. If you only focus on the technology, you might end up with one that has no practical use, since it cannot be manufactured to scale.

Dengue is an epidemic in many countries including Bangladesh. Do you see yourself developing a vaccine against it?

I am personally not working on one, but I do have former colleagues working on a dengue vaccine that could work against all four of its stereotypes. Hopefully we can see that developed in the near future.

Do you foresee any more pandemics?

There will always be pandemics, but what has increased the likelihood of them happening is that many viruses exist in wild animals that we do not come in contact with too often. But with deforestation and rapid urbanization, there is more chance of contact between humans and wild animals. If they start spreading in humans, the majority will most likely do nothing, but a small percentage of them are capable of causing an outbreak.

Can Bangladesh be considered as a new frontier in vaccine development?

What we've learned is that vaccine manufacturing technology can be transferred to multiple sites, and I'm interested in, in the long term, working with different countries to see what vaccines they need, and then if, by collaboration, those needs can be met.

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