The creator of the Oxford vaccine is a mom to triplets. Her children participated in the trial.

Business Insider US
  • AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford announced Monday that their COVID-19 vaccine was 70% effective, on average.
  • The vaccine's creator, Sarah Gilbert, had faith in its efficacy from the start: Her triplets participated in the UK trial.
  • "This vaccine should do what we always wanted it to do," Gilbert said on Monday. "We wanted a vaccine for the world, not just for high-income countries."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca received some long-awaited good news on Monday: The company's coronavirus vaccine, developed in partnership with the University of Oxford, was found to be 70% effective, on average, in late-stage clinical trials with more than 20,000 volunteers in the UK and Brazil.

The results varied depending on the dosage. 

Nearly 9,000 volunteers received two full doses at least one month apart — a regimen that was only 62% effective. But around 2,700 volunteers were given a half-dose for their first shot, followed by a full dose for their second one. Under that regimen, the vaccine's effectiveness rose to 90%. 

The UK trial included three notable participants: the triplets of the vaccine's creator, Sarah Gilbert.

As young adults in their 20s, Gilbert's children fit the typical profile of a vaccine trial volunteer. To participate in AstraZeneca's trials, volunteers must be at least 18 years old. They must also be healthy or have a stable underlying medical condition.

Gilbert told Bloomberg in July that she wasn't worried about her children joining the trial.

"We didn't really discuss it as I wasn't home much at the time," she said, adding: "We know the adverse event profile and we know the dose to use because we've done this so many times before."

Gilbert's rise to prominence

Gilbert is a veteran vaccine researcher. She joined the University of Oxford as a senior postdoctoral researcher in 1994. Five years later, she became a university lecturer — just one year after giving birth to premature triplets.

Her partner, fellow scientist Rob Blundell, became the family's primary caretaker. Gilbert, meanwhile, rose to prominence at Oxford, receiving funding to lead her own research group on flu vaccine development in 2007.

"Nursery fees would have cost more than my entire income as a post-doctoral scientist, so my partner has had to sacrifice his own career to look after our children," Gilbert said in her university bio.

All three of her children now study biochemistry. Gilbert's daughters, Caitlin and Susannah, attend Oxford, while her son, Freddie, goes to the University of Bath. 

Since the start of the pandemic, Gilbert has emerged as both a trusted scientific voice and the public face of AstraZeneca's trial. She has been profiled several times this year, interviewed on television, and even named one of the BBC's 100 inspiring and influential women of 2020. 

"I, for one, 100% trust the lady who injected her own kids," Merve Emre, an associate English professor at Oxford, wrote on Twitter

A speedy quest to develop a vaccine

Before the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, came into existence, Gilbert was studying a similar human coronavirus: MERS-CoV. The virus causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — a disease that has infected just 2,500 people worldwide but is far deadlier than COVID-19. 

Gilbert's MERS vaccine advanced to a phase-one clinical trial in December 2019, just as the novel coronavirus was starting to spread in China. 

Her COVID-19 vaccine now uses a similar technology: Both shots rely on a chimpanzee virus called ChAdOx1 to trigger an immune response in humans.

This type of shot, known as a viral vector vaccine, is relatively easy to develop compared to traditional vaccines. Gilbert's team designed their vaccine within days of getting their hands on the SARS-CoV-2 genome. By April, Gilbert predicted that her vaccine could be available in six months.

"I have a high degree of confidence about this vaccine because it is technology that we have used before," she told the BBC.

For a while, it looked like AstraZeneca would hit that milestone — but the company briefly paused its trials in September after an "unexplained illness" in one UK participant.

A UK coronavirus vaccine trial.

The UK trial resumed less than a week later, after local regulators determined it was safe to do so. In a press release, Oxford said "no serious safety events related to the vaccine have been identified."

The company's US trial, however, didn't receive the go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration to resume until October. That means its results are slightly delayed, though experts believe they could still be released this winter.

The US trial is testing two full doses of the vaccine, suggesting the results could be less impressive than the ones released earlier this month by Pfizer and Moderna. Pfizer's vaccine was found to be 95% effective in preventing COVID-19, while Moderna's was found to be 94.5% effective. But, unlike these vaccines, the AstraZeneca shots don't need to be stored at below-freezing temperatures, making them easier to distribute worldwide.

On Monday, an AstraZeneca spokesman told STAT the company is considering adding the half-dose regimen to its ongoing clinical trials.

"This vaccine should do what we always wanted it to do," Gilbert said on a Monday call. "We wanted a vaccine for the world, not just for high-income countries."

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