Professor Sarah Gilbert talks COVID-19 vaccine with Australian pharmacists

The Oxford scientist behind one of the leading COVID-19 vaccines in the pipeline has told Australian pharmacists about juggling her triplets and trying to save the world.

Professor Sarah Gilbert delivered a webinar on Tuesday night to 1200 Australian, New Zealand, British and Egyptian pharmacists, detailing her “mission” to create the world’s first mass-produced COVID-19 vaccine, which could be administered in community pharmacies around the country.

It comes after Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed more than 25 million doses of the University of Oxford vaccine, said to be one of the most advanced in the world, had been secured for Australians if trials proved successful.

It’s one of two prospects for Australia after the University of Queensland announced promising results for their COVID-19 vaccine in hamster and human trials.

The online webinar, live from the UK, was organised by the Australasian College of Pharmacy and the Queensland Branch of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia to help Australasia’s pharmacists understand the development and clinical issues associated with the world’s leading vaccine candidates.

When asked how she’s working to save the world while balancing the demands of being a mum to triplets, Prof Gilbert said now that her triplets were older, they were able to help her.

“It was more intensive when they were tiny, but as adults they’re now looking after me so I can get on with the job,” she said.

Prof Gilbert said work on a specific coronavirus vaccine had been started well before the COVID-19 pandemic, and her team was drawing on extensive knowledge and outcomes of previous vaccination research.

“There are no shortcuts being taken with the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, indeed manufacturing a specific COVID-19 vaccine on a large scale started in February,” Prof Gilbert said.

Pharmacists will be front and centre when a COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out on a large scale.

In Queensland, chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young said the state would use the enormous network of almost 1200 community pharmacies when a future COVID-19 vaccine became available so all Queenslanders could safely and conveniently access the vaccination.

The Australasian College of Pharmacy president Chris Owen said it had been fascinating for members to learn more about the journey of Prof Gilbert, her team and the pathway to a potential vaccine.

“The college has been delivering cutting-edge pharmacist education for more than 40 years,” he said.

“It’s a privilege to continue offering agile and relevant education for pharmacists, especially during a time when they quickly need factual COVID-19 clinical information around from expert sources as the pandemic evolves.”

Scientists working on the University of Queensland COVID-19 vaccine say it has worked in animal trials and produced no severe side effects during early-stage human studies.

The S-clamp vaccine has been tested on hamsters in The Netherlands and has offered protection to the animals when exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Early results from the Brisbane human trial in 120 adults are promising and have caused no major complications after a single dose.

UQ scientist Keith Chappell told the Courier Mail results showed the vaccine was safe and likely to “provide protection against both the virus infection and the symptoms of the disease”.

“In hamsters, we can confidently say that we elicit a stronger neutralising immune response than the average infection in a human being,” he said.

“Infection of a human being in the real world is distinct from a hamster in the laboratory, but we hope there will be parallels there and these results are pointing in the right direction. It looks really good.”

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