Vaccine researchers are not showy. If there is a flashy vaccine researcher out there, I’ve yet to meet them. Most of them talk about their colleagues more than they talk about themselves. In fact if you ask them about the work they are doing, they will invariably tell you how great their team is. Yet this year, more than ever, they deserve to have the spotlight firmly on them. As we watched the first waves of people getting their first vaccine doses and heard their hopes of finally being able to hug loved ones, it was impossible not to be moved. Yet this moment was only taking place because – while many of us were staying home – vaccine researchers were working tirelessly so they could ride to our rescue, armed with the ultimate weapons against the pandemic.
If this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic, as we all hope, then it’s clear that this has come about through individuals working together for the good of us all. And, make no mistake, these researchers have been working unbelievably hard. One told me they had done the equivalent of four years’ work, in one year. Many people won’t realise that many of them could not just shelve the existing projects they were working on before the Covid-19 pandemic hit — because diseases such as Aids also need vaccines. So, in many cases, these researchers were pulling 14-hour days, in effect doing two jobs. They are working non-stop: skipping meals, not going home, missing family events, dropping hobbies or sacrificing spare time. One researcher told me that the real unsung hero in all of this was her husband, for keeping the family home running – because you cannot make a vaccine without someone cooking you dinner at night and doing your laundry and looking after your kids.
I am a doctor by training. Medicine is science, applied to the human body. But you don’t need to be meticulous and super-precise most of the time. Vaccine research is creative, intellectually challenging work that can change lives. But it is also often incredibly repetitive, dull, and time-consuming. You have to concentrate – but you are repeating the same tasks, over and over. I would be horrible at it. Which makes me so unbelievably grateful for the amazingly particular people who work in vaccine research labs.
You might imagine the world of vaccine development to be cut-throat, given the prestige and money at stake. But it is really not. It is collaborative, and generous in a way that I find extremely moving. Researchers talk with scientists in other labs; they swap notes, and share data. They are motivated only by a genuine desire to end the pandemic, as quickly and safely as possible. The researchers I have spoken to tell me they are delighted when they see that other people’s vaccines are working. I have been speaking with the researchers in the Imperial College London Covid-19 vaccine development lab, run by Prof Robin Shattock. (Their self-amplifying RNA vaccine is now completing phase one clinical trials.) I thought, before I spoke to them, that they might be disappointed that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine beat them to regulatory approval. But, they tell me, we needed many shots at this to find a vaccine that worked. And besides, Pfizer might not be able to supply vaccines to every country that needs it – we still need other vaccines. There is still everything to play for.
It has been weird for these researchers to suddenly step into the spotlight. No one becomes a scientist because they love being the centre of attention. A year ago, if you had met a vaccine researcher at a party, you would probably think what they did was interesting, but you wouldn’t bite their hand off to know more. Now, everyone is talking about their work. One researcher told me how deeply odd it was to suddenly see their lab in newspaper pages. But, in recent years, people’s faith in experts has been rapidly eroded – so seeing the way that the public has placed their trust in these researchers to keep us safe is just phenomenal. I don’t want to lure kids into vaccine research by saying it is like being a YouTuber: vaccine research is undoubtedly hard, and not amazingly well paid. You have to be dedicated. But I hope that the Covid pandemic will encourage young people to consider a career in vaccine research.
And this year has shown them what they can do if bureaucratic barriers are removed. Normally, when they are running clinical trials and want to change something minor such as the amount of blood you are drawing from people – you have to ask for permission, and it takes weeks to get the OK. This year, the regulator has applied the same scrutiny but much more quickly. When the researchers needed permission or equipment or money or extra lab space, they got it. They were able to do science unimpeded. Everything moved dynamically, and quickly – but safely.
When you think about vaccines, it is kind of mind-blowing. I spoke to someone the other day whose leg didn’t work properly, because he had polio as a child. I don’t have to worry about that for my child, because we have a polio vaccine. I hope this year has shown people the potential of science to make the world a better place, and the researchers who work tirelessly to keep us all safe. Truly, they are the unsung heroes of 2020. One vaccine researcher I spoke to recently told me: “Don’t make this piece about me – I want it to be about the team!” But it is about her, and all the other unknown vaccine researchers out there. To them, I say: thank you.
As told to Sirin Kale