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A panel of experts came together to discuss translational research successes and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of the RSB’s ongoing Policy Lates event series.

The event was chaired by Professor Sheila Graham FRSB, professor of molecular virology at the MRC-University of Glasgow centre for virus research, and chair of the Biochemical Society.

The event began with panellist Teresa Lambe, associate professor and Jenner investigator at the Jenner Institute based at the University of Oxford.

Associate Professor Lambe is part of the team who helped develop the Oxford/AstraZenca vaccine, one of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for use in the UK.

Associate Professor Lambe covered how teams were able to develop their COVID-19 vaccine as quickly as possible by completing the usual steps of testing and clinical trials in parallel, and through working with many collaborators worldwide.

 “We could not have got where we are today with so many vaccines available if we had not worked as a team.

“This pandemic has brought out the best in a lot of us – it has thrown up a lot of hardship, and it is not over by any means, but when we work together with a common goal and a common purpose we are able to do some really remarkable things.”

All speakers

L-R: Professor Sheila Graham FRSB, Associate Professor Teresa Lambe, Dr Megan MacLeod, Dr Ankur Mutreja

Dr Megan Macleod, senior lecturer in immunology at the University of Glasgow, covered how scientists design vaccines, and the history of vaccine development from the early creation of a smallpox vaccine through to today’s detailed understanding of how vaccines interact with the body at a molecular level.

Dr Ankur Mutreja, group leader for global health – infectious diseases in the department of medicine at the University of Cambridge, discussed how the pandemic has changed the public’s understanding of global health.

Dr Mutreja explained how the public have become more understanding of how pathogens spread disease and the importance of sanitation and hygiene.

Policy makers have also become more aware of the need to tackle other major issues for global health such as antimicrobial resistance.

Dr Mutreja also explained how the pandemic “is far from over” and the importance of equitable vaccine access - as of the end of April 2021, less than 2% of Africa’s population had been vaccinated.

By contrast, over 40% of the population in the United States and over 20% in Europe had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The panel then took questions from the audience, including on the potential to develop an oral COVID-19 vaccine, our understanding of mRNA, the effect the pandemic may have had on other common diseases, such as the common cold and flu, and lessons learned for the future.

Associate Professor Lambe concluded: “We really need to consider that no-one is going to be safe until every country is safe, and we need to keep working on keeping this pandemic under control.”

Dr Macleod added: “We need to get those vaccines to everybody.

“We haven’t been doing a good job [of vaccine delivery] for many, many years – every year thousands of children die from vaccine-preventable diseases, and we are just seeing that escalated with SARS-CoV-2 in older populations.”

Dr Mutreja closed the event by saying: “Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations do.

“The whole COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as an exercise in emergency management.

"From making a vaccine within a year and deploying it so quickly and making sure that large sections of the population get vaccinated so quickly, to tackling the problem of misinformation and learning lessons from the situation.

“Going forward there is a lot that can be learned and best used to tackle other problems.”

This event was part of the RSB Policy Lates series, supported by the Policy Lates Working Group: the Biochemical Society, the British Pharmacological Society, the Society for Applied Microbiology, the Society for Experimental Biology, and The Physiological Society.

Footage from the event will be available on the RSB’s YouTube channel.