Trials & Tribulations of Developing the First COVID-19 Vaccine

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14 October 2021

As Australia begins emerging from lockdowns, the MTPConnect Podcast spoke to Oxford Vaccine Group's Dr Maheshi Ramasamy in the UK about leading the clinical trials that gave us the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine & made the 'freedom days' some of us are now enjoying possible.

Dr Ramasamy, an Australian Sri Lankan, is Principal Investigator at the Oxford Vaccine Group where she leads on adult clinical vaccine trials, including trials for the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine which, with more than 400 million doses administered worldwide and 50 million doses manufactured in Melbourne, has become one of the world’s most important vaccines.

Dr Ramasamy joined the MTPConnect podcast to take us through the challenges of developing a successful international clinical trial program, against the clock and during a fast-moving and rapidly intensifying pandemic.

“We were trying to run these trials, vaccinating a hundred people a day, whilst maintaining social distancing, whilst keeping everyone safe, trying source PPE, trying to make sure people could travel safely to our vaccination sites. And of course, we couldn’t meet any of the people we were collaborating with,” she told Podcast co-hosts, MTPConnect Managing Director and CEO Dr Dan Grant and COO Stuart Dignam.

Dr Ramasamy acknowledged the contribution of the 12,000 volunteers who stepped-up to be the first participants in the trial. The phased clinical trials were conducted at 19 sites in the UK, Brazil, South Africa and Kenya in a bid to create a vaccine for the world in a not-for-profit collaboration that saw the vaccine approved within just eight months.

Also a Consultant Physician at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Ramasamy reflected on her experiences on the frontline in UK COVID hospital wards at the height of the pandemic - and the impact of securing approval for the vaccine.

“It was so desperate on the wards at that stage… the staff were off sick.. we had no beds, the oxygen supply had cut out, and this junior doctor turned to me and said, ‘is this what the end of the world feels like?’ And you know, it really did feel a bit like that. And then the vaccine was approved… and I thought this is going to help turn the corner, and that was just incredible.”

Dr Ramasamy also shared her motivations and research interests. She is the Deputy Director of the Graduate Entry Medicine course at Oxford and the Florey Lecturer at University’s Magdalen College. She explained how her international career pathway – including working at Ballarat Base Hospital in Victoria - helped her to pursue this challenge of a lifetime.

“I’ve been really lucky to be able to work in different parts of the world. And it’s fantastic to see how in different healthcare systems everyone has their patient’s best interests at heart, and that’s why we do medicine at the end of the day - to try to make people better and do your best for them.”

This captivating episode of the MTPConnect podcast is not to be missed! Listen now!