Amid bemusement from scientists at the deluge of often undeserved criticism, the Guardian pieces together the story behind the vaccine’s successes and failures.
n January 2020, when most of the world slept soundly in ignorance of the pandemic coming its way, a group of scientists at Oxford University got to work on a vaccine to save the planet. They wanted it to be highly effective, cheap, and easy to use in even the poorest countries.
Prof Sarah Gilbert, Prof Andrew Pollard and others pulled it off. With speed crucial, they designed it and launched into trials before bringing in a business partner. The giant Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca would manufacture it, license it around the world – and not make a profit until the pandemic was over.
It was an inspired, idealistic and philanthropic crusade – yet they have spent the last year being attacked from all sides.
As politicians, regulators, the public and the press have all weighed in, it is almost as if the vaccine has gone from hero to zero.
So much has gone wrong, and the well-intentioned folk at Oxford and AstraZeneca have taken so many blows, that it is hardly surprising that they wonder whether they have been the victims of a deliberate disinformation campaign.
It seems they have. There is clear evidence that the Oxford vaccine, and other jabs, have been targeted by Russians peddling disinformation in order to promote their own version, Sputnik V.
At the university and the company, whose partnership has held firm under the extraordinary strain, there is bemusement at the disasters and deluge of criticism. “Everyone is ascribing this dark motive to everything we do,” said one company insider.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford and the government’s life sciences adviser, who has been involved with the vaccine from the beginning, says they have been singled out.
“Of course the vaccine is not perfect … We were very clear that we understand that there are complications from the vaccine, as I think you’ll find there are with all the vaccines to be honest. But ours has had the bloody spotlight, and people just won’t let go.
“There’s a long history of trouble with this vaccine. And it’s hard to pin it on any one thing, and I think it would be fair to say maybe we haven’t handled the negative news as well as we might have. But we’re kind of new at this game [and] there was nothing deceitful about what we did. We just perhaps didn’t get in front of the dialogue.”
There has been no single enemy with Oxford/AstraZeneca in its sights. Instead, it is a story of cultural and political differences, of misunderstandings and mistakes. It is a very human story, at heart, featuring people behaving badly, or with naked self-interest, in the midst of a terrifying pandemic….