It’s not every day that a BMC member is knighted. Amongst those commended in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list this year is Andrew Pollard, who you might have heard on the Today program. As well as being the Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group at the University of Oxford, which developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, Andrew happens to be a striped Himalayan mountaineer. Sarah Stirling talks to Andrew about his two passions: mountains and vaccines.
Andrew, who is also Professor of Paediatric Infection and Immunity at Oxford, is well-known in his field as an authority on the design, development and testing of vaccines for adults and children. Over the past year, his capacity as Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group has catapulted the professor to wider recognition as a public figure.
Whenever Andy is interviewed on the TV or radio, he throws in a climbing analogy whenever possible, betraying his passion for the mountains. In fact, in the thick of the pandemic, Andrew found time to give an Alpine Club lecture, Peaks and Pandemics, which you can watch here.
From medic to mountaineer
It was while he was a medical student at Barts that Andrew first became passionate about climbing. Joining the Barts Alpine Club led, in 1988, to his participation in the first British ascent of Jaonli (6632m); in 1991 the first British ascent of Chamlang (7309m), and in 1994 he was deputy leader of the successful British Mount Everest Medical Expedition.
The 1994 British Mount Everest Medical Expedition at Everest Base Camp
Five members of the same team at the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale in 2019
Andrew told us, "During the late 90s, I moved with my young family to Vancouver, to work at British Columbia Children’s Hospital. We were able to immerse ourselves (in between going to work) in the outdoor indulgence of the Province with some notable trips skiing, ski-mountaineering and kayaking." In 2001, Andrew took up the position of Professor of Paediatric Infection and Immunity at Oxford, where he has remained ever since.
"The past 20 years," he told us, "Have been filled with a growing family, too much obsession with work, which included extensive travel, mainly to South Asia to work with brilliant local teams on vaccines for children. But there have been plenty of excuses to get into the hills here at home and in farflung places on foot or on a bike, too."
Developing the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca Vaccine
Andrew's outdoor life was, however, completely put on hold while focussing on the all-important COVID vaccine. How did he come to be Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group?
Andrew in Nepal, two weeks before the 2015 earthquake, below the Larkya La
It was while studying at Barts that Andrew decided to specialise in paediatric infectious diseases, which remain the leading global causes of death in childhood. Before COVID struck, Andrew’s work regularly took him to regions of the world such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Uganda, where infectious diseases are a huge burden and there aren’t enough doctors.
Andrew's biggest programme before COVID was working on typhoid, and the new vaccine he studied is now being rolled out across low income countries to improve child health: ten million doses were deployed in an outbreak in Pakistan in February 2021.
In January 2020, however, the Oxford research team switched almost entirely to working on COVID and the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine.
"The not-for-profit Astra-Zeneca COVID vaccine can easily be distributed in fridges, which means that it can get into even remote villages in countries like Africa"
The development of the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine was very much focussed on global access. Andrew commented: “We have a large team running the trial in Oxford, but around 2,000 more are in national and international sites, including Brazil, South Africa and Kenya.”
The not-for-profit vaccine can easily be distributed in fridges, which means that it can get into even remote villages in countries like Africa. Another important factor is that, even if there are restrictions on movement, a supply chain distributed all over the world reduces the risk of interruption.
After working flat-out on the vaccine, Andrew managed to squeeze in a trip to the Lake District and the Borders this summer
What does the future look like for both the Oxford Vaccine Group, and for COVID?
Andrew told us: "We still have a lot of COVID work, but we are now also starting a new trial of a vaccine we have developed for plague, the cause of the Black Death in the Middle Ages. This disease still causes outbreaks in Madagascar and in DRC, as well as other parts of Africa; cases also occur in Russia and the United States."
However, COVID remains a focus. Andrew told us: “It is quite difficult to see the other side. It feels like we’ve still got a big mountain to climb with the pandemic. It is important that we help other countries for if they are still in the pandemic, then it affects their lives, but also our own economy and health security.
"Enough vaccine doses have now been made, a billion doses of our vaccine, and 4.25 billion overall, so that we are already at a point where most deaths in 2021 from now on could be prevented. Unfortunately, those doses haven’t been wisely deployed to those at highest risk everywhere in the world, and many more people will die in 2021.”
"This is not a moment to leave our rope-mates behind.”
“There is uncertainty about what comes next, how long protection will last, whether boosters are needed, and when equitable distribution will save the world. We have scaled the mountain, but many of our friends in low income countries are still struggling through the heat in the foothills. This is not a moment to leave our rope-mates behind.”
“I am, however, optimistic that we will find ways of containing the virus. I think vaccination will do this, and for those who cannot be protected by vaccines, there is no doubt that treatments have improved so that the recovery rates of people who do get infected have increased throughout the course of the pandemic.”
We offer our warm congratulations and thanks to Andrew, who has been a BMC member for three decades, for his work on the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine and his well-deserved knighthood.
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