Aspen Pattinson talks to Imperial College London bioengineer Dr Anna Blakney about the race for a coronavirus vaccine and women in the sciences
For most of us over the last six months, our days have largely consisted of a small selection of ingredients: a sofa/armchair (perhaps even lawn furniture if you're lucky), a book, a TV, a walk around the houses (weather permitting), a fridge and, finally, a bed from which you can rise and repeat tomorrow. Even now, most of us are still too cautious to break the repetitive monotony of our built-up routines for much beyond the most needed haircut of your life, two walks around the houses, and perhaps an excursion to your almost-forgotten eatery of choice if you are particularly daring. Yet, given that we are now well and truly entering the second wave, even those small luxuries may be seeing the end of their hiatus from hibernation.
However, as stipulated, that is most of us. For a select few, careers have built up to this moment and working life is now busier than ever before.
Introducing: Dr. Anna Blakney.
Dr. Blakney is a Research Fellow at Imperial College London whose PhD in Bioengineering and career history in the study of treatment and prevention of infectious diseases mean that she is one of the women at the forefront of the race for a COVID-19 vaccine. In between donning the various hats she must wear as currently one of the country's busiest people, we at The Teller are incredibly fortunate to talk with Dr. Blakney about her current work and inspiring more young women to pursue a career in the sciences.
"There is quite a lot of variety in my typical working day," she begins when I ask about her daily routine at the moment, "but generally I'm working in the lab preparing vaccine formulations, evaluating vaccines in preclinical animal models, analysing data or writing up our results." Yet, despite her sole focus today being the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Blakney admits to being at first unsure of the virus' deadly potential. "I was honestly sceptical at first because it didn't seem like it could have such a global impact," she explains, "but in January it became more and more apparent that this virus knows no boundaries."
However, in emphasising the collaborative nature of her work, Dr. Blakney goes on to explain that once she and her team realised the scale of the challenge ahead, their labs were quickly able to be be turned over to specialising in the virus. She details that, having previously been working on rabies and influenza, "the advantage of using our self-amplifying RNA platform is that it's easy to switch between different indications." Fortunately, this meant that once China had released the virus' sequence in January, "we were able to move from our projects on rabies and Marburg viruses to SARS-CoV-2 quite rapidly and start working on a vaccine."
"It became more and more apparent that this virus knows no boundaries"
Since then, though for the average person the last six months have stretched on with that odd combination of both endless and rapidly-passing time, for Dr. Blakney research is moving quickly. Consult any one of her interviews for British Vogue (August 2020 print issue, pages 124-27), Elle or Grazia and you will see that back in April Imperial's animal trials were conducted quickly, and results were looking very promising. Now, several months on, Dr. Blakney enlightens me on the current stage of the process—human trials—though this stage of vaccine development necessitates dropping down a gear or two.
"The preclinical stage feels a lot faster than the clinical trials!" she explains. "We started our human clinical trials on the 19th of June, but it takes a lot more time to enrol people and wait for the results compared to animal study. Our preclinical data looks really good and we're moving into the clinic with a dose of 1 µg, which for comparison is a 100 times lower dose than other RNA vaccines (such as Moderna)." In explaining how her team conducted their early human trials, she details that "the first fifteen participants got a dose escalation, meaning that we started with 1/10th of the dose and worked our way up to the full 1 µg to make sure it's safe and doesn't show any side effects. This has been successfully completed so we can now administer the full dose to a larger number of people."
While I cannot claim to be nearly as knowledgeable as Dr. Blakney on the finer details of the science, it is clear in our conversation that she is very happy with the way her team's trials are going and is optimistic about the progression of the vaccine. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of this global effort cannot be underplayed. The likes of Dr. Blakney's lab in Imperial's St Mary's Campus can be found around the world, with all teams working together to produce a vaccine fit for public use. However, creating the vaccine is only half the battle. Producing the volume of vaccination needed to inoculate as many people as possible around the world is unprecedented and will be a task unto itself. Dr. Blakney addresses this concern when she says: "It will be amazing if we're able to use such a low dose [as stated above in her explanation of the clinical trials] as it means we're able to produce more vaccines from a single batch, which is really important right now."
Another possible bump in the road to global vaccination which I put to Dr. Blakney is the news that, at the end of June, the US had bought up the world stock remdesivir, an antiviral drug which has proven to be one of the few medications that can treat the symptoms of COVID-19. Addressing the issue in The Guardian, Professor Devi Sridhar—a Global Public Health Chair and Professor at the University of Edinburgh—wrote that "[t]hough low- and middle-income countries can still produce their own generic versions of the drug, European and other high-income countries are not able to buy remdesivir or produce it for three months." Though Professor Sridhar went on to add that "[f]ortunately the UK and Germany have stockpiled enough of the drug to treat all the patients who need it," Donald Trump's strongman 'America first' approach to drug treatments nevertheless appears to fly directly in the face of all those, such as Dr. Blakney, working on a united front against the virus.
In light of this, I asked Dr. Blakney whether there is a concern among researchers of unequal distribution of the vaccine. Is she concerned about a kind of 'global postcode lottery', if you will, in the event that a country such as the United States was able to buy up a majority of the global supply, especially when the sheer volume needed is already something of a concern?
"This is a great opportunity for scientific progression"
"I think all countries are now realising that it's important to be able to produce vaccines and therapies in-country," she responds. "It's actually been an amazing time in scientific research — everyone we've interacted with in the UK, US and everywhere [else] has been willing to share their data and protocols. I think we all realise that this is a great opportunity for scientific progression and we're all aiming for the same thing — effective vaccines and therapies that stop the virus from impacting more people."
Clearly, what Dr. Blakney's response to the issue shows is that whilst the politicisation of COVID-19 is largely what has been hitting the front pages, the scientific community are indeed working on a united front, leaving the egos and the point-scoring to the politicians. It has been easy for we sat at home on the aforementioned sofa to be discouraged by Trump's refusal to encourage the wearing of face masks in the US and continued assertion that the virus will simply disappear, as well as Boris Johnson's speedy easing of lockdown measures, seemingly against the advice of many scientists, only to have to go back on many of his own measures just a couple of months later. Certainly, these issues are concerning, and the politicisation of the virus cannot be overlooked. Yet, at the same time, huge progress has been made by researchers around the world.
At the time of our interview in mid-July, over 140 vaccines were being tested, with Oxford University's human trials showing highly promising results of the injection triggering immune responses—the making of antibodies and T-cells—to fight the virus. Two months later, even more progress has been made. The UK has pledged £500 million to a global vaccine-sharing scheme, thousands are set to be enrolled in human vaccine trials and the prospect of beginning public vaccination in the next six months is looking likely. This is a prediction which Dr. Blakney also shares.
Whilst the governmental response to the pandemic has appeared at many points to be lacking direction and cohesion, the all-important research is strategically coordinated, rigorously conducted, and reaping the rewards in the form of encouraging trial results. "The timeline of clinical trials and vaccine distribution is pretty set in stone," Dr. Blakney qualifies. "You can't skip any of the phases as it's important to establish that it's both safe and effective before distributing to the public." In response to the (I admit it) rather cheeky question from a sofa-occupying recent graduate on when we might expect said vaccine, Dr. Blakney reassuringly answers that ICL's final trials are expected to be concluded in December or January, and so the beginning of 2021 looks promising.
"I always found it inspiring to see strong women in research and it made me think: if they can do it, why can't I?"
The opportunity to discuss with a leading COVID-19 researcher the development of a life-saving vaccine is not one I take for granted, and yet it would be remiss of me to not in doing so address the statistical rarity of Dr. Blakney's position in her field. According to research conducted by UNESCO, just 30% of the world's scientific researchers are women. Despite a growing number of women attending university, the statistics show that many end up opting out of the highest levels of education which are necessary for a career in research. Therefore, I felt I couldn't let Dr. Blakney go without asking her about her own path into scientific research against the odds.
"I was always interested in math [Dr. Blakney hails from Colorado] and science and really fell in love with biomedical research," she tells me. "I still think it's so cool that we can use our knowledge to create new things that improve human health and quality of life." She goes on to add that she was herself inspired by female scientists already in the field, mentioning the "great women role models and mentors I had along the way that gave me the confidence to pursue this career."
Now, Dr. Blakney herself has this opportunity to galvanise young women, with her work on the COVID-19 vaccine shining a light on the importance of women in the scientific professions. "I do hope that seeing women scientists being involved in COVID-19 research will inspire a new generation of girls to become scientists," she concludes at the end of our conversation. "When I was growing up and interested in science I always found it inspiring to see strong women in research and it made me think: if they can do it, why can't I?"