Professor Robin Shattock is head of mucosal infection and immunity in the department of medicine at Imperial College London. He and his colleagues are working to create a vaccine to tackle coronavirus. Having spent decades searching for a HIV vaccine, he is a man on a mission to rid us of disease.
Making a vaccine that the whole world is waiting for is exciting and invigorating. There’s an opportunity to do something meaningful, but the challenges of making it globally available are pretty daunting if you stop to think about them.
I’ve spent at least 20 years working on an HIV vaccine. I still think making one will be one of the biggest biological challenges of a generation.
When this virus started to appear we discussed as a group whether to make a vaccine. We went from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ in nine days. We haven’t had a dull day since then.
We’ve already got encouraging data. One good thing about this virus is that there doesn’t seem to be great diversity, compared to something like HIV, which has different strains around the globe.
There are at least 35 different vaccines being developed. Any one of those including ours could hit the buffers at some point, but having all these different approaches will hopefully mean success. We have funding for the first stage; we hope to confirm the first clinical study soon, too.
Science is competitive, but we’re racing against the virus, not each other. Everybody would like to be the one that makes the vaccine, but if we fall by the wayside because somebody else has got there faster, we’ll celebrate that success.
Part of the vaccine we’re working on was made in the US, but it’s in Europe now. It’s like waiting for an Asos delivery, I have a tracking number to follow it as it makes its way around the world.
We have a pub directly opposite the lab, called The Fountains Abbey. They claim the rights to inventing penicillin, because they’re opposite Fleming’s old laboratory and they suggest that the spores that landed on his agar dish came from their brewery. That’s where we go for a drink.
The majority of people will get a mild illness, but it’s not comforting to say it only affects the elderly and those with underlying conditions if you’re one of those people. We all need to do whatever we can to slow down the spread of the disease.
Londoners have always managed to keep going in the face of adversity, so I would imagine we’ll see that happening now. People will be anxious, but they will also hopefully pull together and support one another.
Interview by Laura Potter