Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green: ‘There’s always going to be another pandemic’

August 2020. The UK is eating out to help out, cocksure in the misguided certainty that the terrible travails of the Covid-19 pandemic are a thing of the past. Dr Catherine Green is on a camping holiday with her daughter, Ellie, and friends. Here, in a rural idyll beside a trickling stream, the Oxford University biologist hoped to get a respite from her punishing work developing a Covid-19 vaccine. There was no phone signal or electricity. There were scarcely 20 people in the campsite. And then, in a queue for a pizza van, Green overheard a fellow camper talking about the Covid-19 vaccine.

The woman had valid concerns, but she was ill-informed. “She was saying she didn’t know what was in it and she didn’t trust it.” For a moment, Green considered leaving her to it: she was on holiday, after all. But she couldn’t walk away. She took a breath, before introducing herself to the holidaymaker. “I can tell you what’s in it,” she said, “because my team made it.” The two women spoke amicably about how the vaccine was designed, before parting ways. Because when you’re creating a vaccine to literally save the world from a brand-new deadly disease, there’s no campsite in the world where you can get away from it all.

In just over a year, Green, 46, and her colleague, Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, 59, have become two of the most recognisable scientists in the world. (It is fair to say that Gilbert, with her distinctive red hair and trademark square-rimmed glasses, is the more widely known – not that Green seems the slightest bit envious.) The memoir they coauthored of the year they spent developing the vaccine, Vaxxers, is a bestseller. Inevitably, there will be a movie adaptation down the line and inevitably Kate Winslet will be involved. There is already a Barbie doll.

You sense they want to slough off the celebrity. At this year’s Wimbledon Championships, Gilbert received a standing ovation, much to her visible mortification. “I didn’t know it was going to happen,” she says of the applause, “and would rather not have been filmed when it suddenly, unexpectedly did.” There are endless interview requests, unsolicited emails, constant encounters in the street. “‘Ooh, I know who you are,’” says Gilbert, mimicking one such interaction. “‘I want you to write a blog post for me!” She flinches. “Don’t give me another job.”

We are speaking via Zoom, Green from home, where she has worked throughout the pandemic, and Gilbert from her office. (The office – utterly drab and institutional – is instantly recognisable to me as the backdrop for the many media interviews Gilbert gave throughout 2020. When I observe this, Gilbert responds, “Because I’m always here.”) In person, Gilbert is more amiable than her slightly dour public image suggests, while Green is a wisecracking, exuberant presence – you sense she’d be good fun on a night out. The week we speak, Boris Johnson has removed all Covid-19 restrictions in England. Mask-wearing is voluntary. But her fame, Gilbert observes drily, is a good reason to “keep the mask on. Tie my hair up. Then I’m a bit less recognisable.”

Gilbert and Green began working on their Covid-19 vaccine in January 2020, in those last days of blissful complacency before the country was upturned like an empty flask on a lab bench. Gilbert was the one to get the ball rolling, having read about a “pneumonia of unknown origin” on an obscure medical news site on New Year’s Day.

A few days later, it became apparent that these deaths were linked to a new Sars-like virus. Gilbert had previously worked to develop a -vaccine for Mers-Cov, which is, like Sars, also a coronavirus. In theory, a vaccine for Covid-19 could be developed in much the same way as the Mers vaccine, meaning Gilbert was one of very few people in the world who, at that time, might actually be able to help. Gilbert enlisted Green to help make a prototype vaccine, using an ultra-rapid technology Gilbert had been developing for years.

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