AOn the first day of the tournament at Wimbledon, Sarah Gilbert was the guest of honor in the Royal Box. The organizers had invited her along with other scientists and hospital staff as a thank you for her work in the fight against the corona pandemic. The stadium announcer welcomed the special guests before the players.
Spontaneous applause broke out in Center Court, which ended in a standing ovation. Sarah Gilbert stayed in her seat, visibly moved. The 59-year-old vaccinologist began researching a drug against Covid-19 in mid-January 2020 and has since headed the development of the Vaxzevria vaccine produced by AstraZeneca at Oxford University.
She hasn’t had a vacation since then. As the mother of now adult triplets, all of whom took part in the clinical studies as test subjects, Gilbert is used to hard work.
Sarah Gilbert in a red jacket (ru) during the standing ovation for her at Wimbledon at the end of June
Source: Pool via REUTERS
Her book “Vaxxers” (Hodder & Stoughton) was published on July 8th, in which she and her colleague Catherine Green describe the debilitating months of the pandemic and write against conspiracy theories and misunderstandings about vaccination.
WORLD: Professor Gilbert, the delta variant is now also dominant in Germany. Do the existing vaccines protect?
Sarah Gilbert: The mutations aren’t that much different from the original virus. If the immune response is good after a vaccination, then it will also work with variants. The latter only have a few amino acid changes after all. In fact, we see very high levels of cross-reactive antibodies. Of course there is some reduction in how much the antibodies neutralize the mutation. But by no means does the neutralization fail completely. A change in the vaccine does not seem to be urgently needed.
WORLD: Do you need booster vaccinations in autumn?
Gilbert: The effectiveness declines faster, especially in older people. As the immune system ages, the response to antibodies is no longer as good. So if we need boosters, it will be for the older population. I do not expect this to be necessary for the general public.
WORLD: Should children be vaccinated?
Gilbert: The virus is dangerous to a very small number of children. Countries should consider vaccinating them. At the same time, however, politicians should do a cost-benefit analysis. Let’s look at the Delta example. This mutation is very contagious, people get sick again despite two vaccinations – but the course is very mild. Serious cases and deaths are rare. What the vaccinations achieved their goal: to protect the health system from collapse. So if transmission cannot be prevented and children neither become seriously ill nor die, then the question arises: is it worth vaccinating children? The benefit of vaccination is much less for children than it is for older adults in particular. Especially since the supply of vaccine doses is limited and we should use the existing ones to provide better old people and sick staff in countries that have little or no vaccines. Until everyone is protected, nobody is protected.
WORLD: But if children continue to be infected, are there another threat of school closings?
Gilbert: It is a political question. I can only explain the scientific one. In our country we are nearing the point where we have to decide whether to accept some degree of transmission. We will never eradicate Sars-Cov-2. We have to get to the point where we are living with the virus.
WORLD: Is there a proportion of the vaccinated that achieves herd immunity?
Gilbert: There is no clear answer to this. That depends on the transmittability of the virus. Surely this should now be higher than a year ago because the dominant delta variant is more contagious.
WORLD: Do you recommend mixing vaccines?
Gilbert: This decision must be made based on the data available. Studies so far show an increased reactivity with mixed vaccines. The more data we get, the safer we can use different preparations, which is helpful in view of delivery bottlenecks. However, there is no reason to replace AstraZeneca as a second vaccination, as some countries do because of the occurrence of blood clots. The clots were only found at the first vaccination.
Who a booster vaccination can help
WORLD: The vaccine you developed was produced by AstraZeneca. The company received heavy criticism for allegations of lack of transparency and not keeping promises. Vaxzevria also causes side effects, and the vaccine is still not approved in the USA. What went wrong?
Gilbert: Our vaccine is used in 172 countries. 80 percent of Covax’s (the global vaccination alliance, ed.) administered doses are our product. That’s pretty good, isn’t it? He doesn’t like to be perfect. And if some countries use other vaccines, then that should be fine with me. On the other hand, there are very many countries in the world that do not have vaccines and urgently need them. Our vaccine is often the right one for them because it doesn’t have to be refrigerated.
WORLD: Did you get frustrated with coverage of AstraZeneca?
Gilbert: What has frustrated me is communication. With my colleagues, I have always tried to explain all stages of development publicly. Whenever we got results, we held a press conference. When we presented data, we made sure that it was correct. We didn’t put forward any hypotheses or interpretations, just what we knew – and what we didn’t know. But some politicians and journalists didn’t do it that way. Instead, statements are shaken off their sleeves that are spread around the world and repeated without a database. They were given more weight than what we said, and that cannot be true. Especially when it comes to opinions about the vaccines.
WORLD: In your book you write that “This type of misinformation cost people their lives. People who could have been vaccinated were not vaccinated and some of them died because of it ”. You are specifically referring to a report by the German newspaper “Handelsblatt”, which falsely claimed at the end of January 2021 that, according to government circles in Berlin, your vaccine was only eight percent effective in people over 65 years of age. Is a German medium responsible for the death of people?
Gilbert: Yes. It is extremely important that the facts are reported correctly. Not only for political decisions, but because people decide on the basis of such reports whether or not to get vaccinated.
(Editor’s note: The “Handelsblatt” subsequently corrected the statement. “Bild” had also reported an effectiveness of less than ten percent with references to government sources. The Standing Vaccination Commission subsequently approved the preparation for people over 65 Years in Germany. The reason, however, was not the lack of effectiveness, but a lack of data)
Oxford-Professorin Sarah Gilbert
Those: picture alliance / dpa / PA Media
WORLD: How do you react to Biontech / Pfizer being considered the better vaccine compared to AstraZeneca?
Gilbert: Here in the UK, we have both vaccines in large numbers. The data show that there is no difference in effectiveness. At Pfizer, the antibody response may be greater, but the result is the same. Both protect equally well against death, hospitalization, infection and contagion.
WORLD: What do we have to do with the virus?
Gilbert: Evolution calls for a virus to get fitter. Why the mutations that are more contagious prevail. Delta is no more dangerous than the original virus. Viruses do not want to kill the host, then they cannot spread. So in the end we get a virus that spreads easily but does not actually cause a high degree of serious illness.
This text comes from the newspaper cooperation Leading European Newspaper Alliance (LENA). In addition to WELT, she owns the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica”, “El País” from Spain, “Le Figaro” from France, “Gazeta Wyborcza” from Poland, “Le Soir” from Belgium and from Switzerland “La Tribune de Genève” and “Tages-Anzeiger”.
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