Next pandemic could be 'more lethal', warns scientist behind Oxford jab

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert said the scientific advances made in research against fighting deadly viruses “must not be lost”. – Dave Benett/Getty Images for Veuve Clicquot

A future pandemic could be “more contagious” and “more lethal” than Covid-19, Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert has warned, urging against complacency when preparing for new disease threats.

Delivering the 44th Richard Dimbleby Lecture Dame Sarah, the co-creator of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, said the scientific advances made in research against fighting deadly viruses “must not be lost”.

“This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods,” Dame Sarah said. “The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”

She added: “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.

Efforts are under way to lay the foundations for a “100-day” vaccine that could stop the next pandemic in its tracks, with a plan to see scientists create an estimated 100 prototype vaccines for the 25 viral families known to infect humans.

Scientists say this means that, when the next virus with pandemic potential emerges, they will be able to build on the prototype to develop a vaccine ready for use within 100 days.

The vaccine “moonshot” is being spearheaded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an organisation that helped fund the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna Covid jabs.

Dame Sarah compared investments in global health security to funding for defence and intelligence services.

“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,” she said.

So far the coronavirus has killed more than five million people and infected at least 265 million. But Dame Sarah, whose team developed a vaccine that has now been used in more than 170 countries, warned that “this pandemic is not done with us” yet.

Her comments come amid mounting fears of the threat posed by the omicron variant – which has now been detected in more than 30 countries across the globe. On Sunday, the number of cases identified in Britain surged by 50 per cent to 246, while experts have warned that “hundreds” more are likely to be circulating undetected.

Dame Sarah said governments should be cautious and “take steps to slow down the spread of this new variant” until scientists know more about the highly mutated variant’s ability to evade antibodies induced by prior infection or vaccination.

Experts have warned that potentially dangerous new variants will continue to emerge until vaccination rates significantly increase across the world, calling omicron a “wake up call” to address vast imbalances in the global rollout.

A report from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation on Monday said Africa has little chance of overcoming the pandemic unless 70 per cent of its population is vaccinated by the end of 2022 – but warned that “extreme vaccine discrimination” is leaving the continent behind.

Only five of Africa's 54 countries are on track to reach a World Health Organisation target of fully vaccinating 40 per cent of the population by end-2021, while nearly 70 per cent of people in G7 countries have had two jabs.

“From early in this crisis, our Foundation and other African voices have been warning that an unvaccinated Africa could become a perfect incubator for variants,” its chair Mo Ibrahim said in a statement.

“The emergence of omicron reminds us that Covid-19 remains a global threat, and that vaccinating the whole world is the only way forward,” he added. “Yet we continue to live with extreme vaccine discrimination, and Africa in particular is being left behind.”

On Monday, Tony Blair also urged wealthy nations to do more to support the scale up of genome sequencing and testing across the continent, and said shutting down travel to countries like South Africa sends “completely the wrong message”.

“We need much more sequencing and maximum transparency to ensure variants are spotted and reported by governments worldwide as quickly as possible, without fear of negative consequences for doing so.”

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