Next pandemic could be more lethal than Covid, says Oxford vaccine creator Dame Sarah Gilbert

Dame Sarah Gilbert. Credit: PA

Another pandemic will threaten human lives and could be “more contagious” and “more lethal”, one of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine inventors has warned.

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, delivering the 44th prestigious Richard Dimbleby Lecture, said the scientific advances made in research against fighting deadly viruses “must not be lost”.

She also addressed the rise in the Omicron variant across the UK, with at least 246 cases, saying the variant may have mutations on the spike protein "that may mean antibodies induced by the vaccines, or by infection with other variants, may be less effective at preventing infection".

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The Oxford professor is credited with saving millions of lives through her role in designing the coronavirus vaccine.

Speaking of the threat of another pandemic, she said: “This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.

“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.”

Dame Sarah has been making and testing vaccines for more than 10 years, mainly using antigens from malaria and influenza, and initiated the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine project in early 2020 when Covid first emerged in China.

The vaccine developed by her team is used in more than 170 countries around the world.

The vaccinologist received a damehood earlier this year for services to science and public health in Covid vaccine development.

Ralph Evans, 88, receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: PA

Speaking about the Omicron variant, Dame Sarah added: “The spike protein of this variant contains mutations already known to increase transmissibility of the virus.

“But there are additional changes that may mean antibodies induced by the vaccines, or by infection with other variants, may be less effective at preventing infection with Omicron.

“Until we know more, we should be cautious, and take steps to slow down the spread of this new variant.

“But as we have seen before, reduced protection against infection and mild disease does not necessarily mean reduced protection against severe disease and death.”

On Sunday, the UK Health Security Agency said a further 86 cases of Omicron had been confirmed in the UK, 68 in England and 18 in Scotland, bringing the total to 246.

Boris Johnson insisted on Monday that the government's response to Omicron has been swift and proportionate, citing new, stricter travel restrictions.

Boris Johnson says the government was the first country in the world to take 'decisive measures' in response to the Omicron variant

"I don't think we need to change the overall guidance and advice we're giving about Omicron in this country. We're still waiting to see exactly how dangerous it is - what sort of effect it has in terms of deaths and hospitalisation," he said during a media round after visiting police.

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government had been "behind the curve" in its reaction to the new variant.

He said: "As soon as we saw the evidence that there would be pre-departure tests, we called on the government to do this last week - the government delayed as they always do".

Sir Keir Starmer: 'The government needs to get ahead instead of being behind'

Alongside travel restrictions, the booster vaccine programme in the UK has been accelerated in response to the spread of the variant.

But there are warnings GPs who delivered the first and second jabs to the housebound are now dropping out as they do not have the time or staff.

In response, a NHS spokesman said: “Local NHS and GP teams are contacting their eligible housebound patients, and we are working closely with St John Ambulance to give local areas additional support.

“We are also providing additional funding to help local teams secure additional staff so that all eligible housebound patients are offered a booster as quickly and safely as possible.”

England has also brought back tougher regulations on the wearing of face coverings in shops and public transport.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid will update MPs on the current Covid situation, on Monday afternoon in Parliament.

The Richard Dimbleby lecture, named in honour of the late broadcaster, features influential speakers from academia, arts and business and the royal family - it will air on BBC on Monday night.