United scientific community honoured after immense Covid-19 response

Experts behind the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine were among those receiving accolades.

Professor Sarah Gilbert
Professor Sarah Gilbert

The scientific community which pulled together as one to do battle with coronavirus is extensively heralded in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Chief among its heroes are the brains behind the design and trialling of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine – the second to be approved for use in the UK.

Its co-designer Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford’s Jenner Institute and Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, is honoured with a damehood.

Her colleagues, Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, and Professor Peter Horby, joint chief investigator for the Recovery trial searching for coronavirus treatments, are both knighted for their services to public health and medical research respectively.

Coronavirus – Tue Oct 13, 2020
Kate Bingham, former chair of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, has been awarded a damehood (Kirsy O’Connor/PA)

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, among the leading experts to become household names during the pandemic, does not feature on the latest honours list, with it thought to be too early for some figures still at the forefront of the pandemic response to be considered.

Joining the honoured ranks of experts is venture capitalist Kate Bingham, former chair of the UK vaccine taskforce, whose efforts to help secure millions of doses of coronavirus jabs for the nation is acknowledged with a damehood.

Ms Bingham said she was “humbled” to be recognised in a year when NHS workers have “risked their health and their lives in fighting Covid”.

“The development of vaccines has been a triumph of scientific and industrial collaboration,” she said.

“Just a year ago we were assembling an unproven portfolio of vaccines for the UK.

“Yet in the last six months nearly 70 million vaccine doses have provided unprecedented protection and saved thousands of lives.”

Her colleague Divya Chadha Manek, seconded from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to be clinical trials workstream lead on the taskforce, is made an OBE after playing an instrumental role in convincing manufacturers to base their trials in the UK.

Originally from India, Ms Manek, 35, recalled the inspiring words passed on by her father, who died in December, as she headed to the UK on a scholarship aged 18.

Handing her £500, he said: “No matter where you go make sure you always be good.”

“That was his motto in life, be good and do good,” Ms Manek said, adding: “We’re big royal fans … and he said do something so amazing that you might get to meet the Queen one day.”

She added: “I know he’ll be up there looking at me and feeling proud.”

Driven by the taskforce’s “save lives now” motto, Ms Manek also helped support the delivery of studies into the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Novavax, Janssen (which is owned by Johnson & Johnson) and Valneva jabs.

Despite an “incredibly challenging year” the taskforce also succeeded in recruiting more than 500,000 potential volunteers to the vaccine research registry.

“It’s the first time it’s ever happened that we’ve been able to do a registry to this scale,” Ms Manek said, adding: “What’s really incredible is what the vaccine taskforce actually achieved in such a short timeframe, the fact of a group of experts coming together, working towards a common purpose, turbocharging everything that was needed. Incredible.”

Professor Paul Elliott, chair of epidemiology and public health medicine at Imperial College London and director of the giant React programme that has tracked Covid-19 case numbers throughout the pandemic, is made a CBE for services to scientific research in public health.

He said the ongoing React study had involved more than two million members of the public.

Prof Elliott added: “We have seen the ups and downs … I think what’s been great about the React programme is that we have picked up the signals early and that’s been really important.

He continued: “What’s very different about this work is that we are reporting back in real time.

“Often the scale of what we do can be very large, but it’s over a very long period … but here we’re looking at almost instant reporting and results feeding directly into policy, and that’s a very, very different way of working.

“It’s been quite a rollercoaster. Many people have been putting in very long hours to achieve this, but in terms of the public health response, it’s clearly been very rewarding.”

Prof Elliott hailed his scientific colleagues and “the way everyone has just dropped everything and worked together”.

Other experts being honoured in the list are Professor Keith Willett, NHS England’s national director of emergency planning and incident response, who is knighted, and Nick Elliott, former director general of the vaccine taskforce, who is made a companion of the Order of the Bath.

David Hunt, head of vaccine operations at AstraZeneca is made a CBE – one of eight employees from the pharmaceutical giant being honoured.

Sir Mene Pangalos, executive vice-president, BioPharmaceuticals R&D, said of her colleagues: “Many have worked around the clock in the past 12 months and have put their lives on hold to commit to a bigger humanitarian cause, positively impacting the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe.”

Elsewhere, Dr Ellen Brooks Pollock, senior lecturer at Bristol University, was made an OBE for using her usual work in veterinary public health to provide expert disease modelling advice during the pandemic.

Professor William Hope, director of the Centre of Excellence in Infectious Diseases Research in Liverpool, was also honoured with an OBE after leading research and supporting the city’s public health response to Covid-19.

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