Invest in pandemic preparedness research like we invest in armed forces, urges Oxford’s Sarah Gilbert
More research funding is needed to prepare for future pandemics that could be even more deadly than Covid-19, a leading scientist behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has warned.
Delivering the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby lecture on 6 December, Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford and co-developer of the vaccine, cautioned against losing the scientific progress made in research against viruses such as Covid-19.
“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,” she said.
“The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost.”
She added: “The experts who responded rapidly and worked relentlessly in 2020 and 2021—without whom we would still be at the mercy of the virus—must not now be asked to fade back into patient and underfunded obscurity.
“Just as we invest in armed forces and intelligence and diplomacy to defend against wars, we must invest in people, research, manufacturing and institutions to defend against pandemics.”
Future pandemics, she warned could be “more contagious, or more lethal, or both” than Covid-19.
Gilbert also urged caution against the newly discovered Omicron variant, which has spread to the UK.
“The spike protein of this variant contains mutations already known to increase transmissibility of the virus,” she said. “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.”
However, she pointed out that “reduced protection against infection and mild disease does not necessarily mean reduced protection against severe disease and death”.
The lecture is due to be broadcast on BBC One at 10.35pm on 6 December.
A government spokesperson told Research Professional News: “We have pledged to invest £14.9 billion in research and development in this financial year, while working alongside medical research charities to support life science innovation, ensuring funding for vital science such as future pandemic preparation is secure.
“Our recently founded UK Health Security Agency will utilise state of the art technologies and ground-breaking capabilities in data analytics and genomic surveillance to tackle Covid-19 and future threats locally, nationally and globally, ensuring we can respond quickly and at scale to future pandemics.”
A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight