Vice-Chancellor, it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you and the congregation, Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, a world-leading vaccinologist, who gave us hope during one of the darkest winters, and whose work on developing a COVID-19 vaccine is saving millions of lives worldwide.
Dame Sarah attended Kettering High School for Girls, where she realised that she wanted a career in medicine. She went on to the University of East Anglia, where she obtained a Batchelor of Science degree in Biological Sciences in 1983. She obtained her Doctorate from the University of Hull, graduating in 1986. After working in the industry for several years, she returned to academia, first as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford in 1994, then appointed Research Lecturer in 1999, Reader in Vaccinology in 2004, and Professor of Vaccinology in 2010.
Her chief research interest is the development of viral vectored vaccines that work by inducing strong and protective T and B cell responses. She works on vaccines for many different emerging pathogens, including influenza A, Nipah virus, MERS, Lassa virus and CCHF virus. In 2020 Professor Gilbert became the Oxford Project Leader for ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, a vaccine against the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, widely known as COVID-19.
The story of the development of this vaccine is remarkable. Starting in January 2020, once the genetic code was published by Chinese scientists, Dame Sarah and her group worked around the clock, and by early February, the lab’s version of the vaccine was tested on mice, showing a strong immune response. However, a lot more work was needed before the clinical trials on people could start. They needed to show that it is genetically stable, production is scalable and, ultimately that the vaccine is safe. I still remember reading the announcement by Oxford University in April 2020 that the first volunteers had been injected with this vaccine and around 1100 people would take part in the first human trials. I was astonished, shocked that this could be done so quickly, but simultaneously crossed my fingers, hoping that the results would be good.
Phase III trials of vaccine efficacy in 30,000 adults in the UK, Brazil and South Africa were underway by the end of May. We all remember that summer of 2020, millions infected and dead worldwide, lives put on hold, economies ruined, the loneliness and cruelty, and a sense of hopelessness. For me personally, as for many of us, it became an obsession – reading eagerly awaited news of the vaccine development, it gave me hope that the end was in sight.
In her own modest words, Dame Sarah said: ‘I have worked in the development of vaccines against infectious pathogens for many years and in the last 2 years have been able to draw on all that I have learned in order to respond to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. I have been so fortunate to work with a very talented and dedicated team who made it possible to develop a vaccine in less time than anyone thought possible.’
In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine is said to have saved more than a million people worldwide from death and prevented more than 50 million people from being infected with COVID-19. There are not many people who have done this.
Being a successful scientist and mother of three, Prof Gilbert is an inspiration to many girls and young women in Science. Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor Dame Sarah Catherine Gilbert who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Science honoris causa.