The scientist behind the creation of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, administered in India as Covishield to protect against COVID-19, on Monday warned that the next virus to hit humankind may be even more lethal and contagious.
Professor Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology at the Jenner Institute of the University of Oxford, who was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II for her pivotal role in developing the vaccine, said there needed to be more funding for pandemic preparedness to prevent the advances made in the field from being lost.
She also warned vaccines could be less effective against the new Omicron variant, but noted that reduced protection against infection and mild disease would not necessarily mean reduced protection against severe illness and death.
“This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. The truth is the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both,” Prof. Gilbert said.
“We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through all we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness. The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost,” she said.
Speaking about the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, she said its spike protein contained mutations known to increase the transmissibility of the virus.
“But there are additional changes that may mean antibodies induced by the vaccines, or by infection with other variants, may be less effective at preventing infection with Omicron. Until we know more, we should be cautious, and take steps to slow down the spread of this new variant,” she said.
“But as we have seen before, reduced protection against infection and mild disease does not necessarily mean reduced protection against severe disease and death,” she added.
Before COVID-19, Gilbert worked on vaccines for more than 10 years, using antigens from malaria and influenza. The 59-year-old expert was delivering the BBC’s 44th Richard Dimbleby Lecture, named in honour of a veteran British journalist and broadcaster and delivered annually by distinguished speakers.
On Sunday, the UK reported another 86 cases of the new Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa, taking its Omicron tally to 246. Meanwhile, a total of 43,992 COVID cases and 54 deaths were recorded as part of the daily UK government coronavirus tally.