Covid Vaccine Front-Runner Is Months Ahead of Her Competition

Covid Vaccine Front-Runner Is Months Ahead of Her Competition

  • The University of Oxford candidate, led by Sarah Gilbert, might be through human trials in September.
  • AstraZeneca has lined up agreements to produce 2 billion doses. Could this be the one?

In April, Sarah Gilbert’s three children, 21-year-old triplets all studying biochemistry, decided to take part in a trial for an experimental vaccine against Covid-19.

It was their mother’s vaccine—she leads the University of Oxford team that developed it—but there wasn’t a big family talk. “We didn’t really discuss it as I wasn’t home much at the time,” Gilbert told me recently. She’d been working around the clock, as one does while trying to end a pandemic, and at any rate wasn’t worried for her kids. “We know the adverse event profile and we know the dose to use, because we’ve done this so many times before,” she says. “Obviously we’re doing safety testing, but we’re not concerned.”

With safety low on her list of worries (her triplets are fine), Gilbert is focused on quickly determining how effective the vaccine will be and how it will be made. In April, Oxford struck a deal with British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca Plc to spearhead global manufacturing and distribution and help run more trials around the world. AstraZeneca has agreed to sell the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis during the crisis if it proves effective and has lined up deals with multiple manufacturers to produce more than 2 billion doses.

Gilbert has been all over the British press, but she appears to regard public attention as a distraction. For more than two decades she worked anonymously, developing vaccines while also, of necessity, churning out endless grant applications. Her research was rarely discussed outside scientific circles. Now she’s leading one of the most high-profile and advanced vaccine candidates against Covid-19, with Phase III, or final-stage, trials under way involving thousands of people in Brazil, South Africa, the U.K., and, soon, the U.S. Money is no longer a struggle.