Sarah Gilbert: Next pandemic could be more lethal than Covid

Future pandemics could be more lethal than the current Covid crisis, one of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has warned.

Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert, delivering the 44th Richard Dimbleby Lecture, said there needed to be more funding for pandemic preparedness to prevent the advances made from being lost.

She also warned vaccines could be less effective against the Omicron variant.

Dame Sarah added that people should be cautious until more was known about it.

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,” she added.

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

“The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost.”

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Speaking about the Omicron variant, she said: “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.”

The UK recorded 86 new cases of the Omicron variant on Sunday, taking the total so far to 246.

However, she added that reduced protection against infection and mild disease would not necessarily mean reduced protection against severe illness and death.

She also said the rapid progress seen in delivering vaccines and medicines during the pandemic should become the norm and there was no reason why a universal flu jab could not be developed in order to wipe out the threat from influenza.

Dame Sarah – who was recognised with a damehood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours earlier this year – began designing a coronavirus vaccine in early 2020 when Covid first emerged in China.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca jab is now the most widely used around the world, with doses sent to more than 170 countries.

The lecture, named after the late broadcaster, Richard Dimbleby, features influential speakers from academia, arts and business and the Royal Family.

The 44th Richard Dimbleby Lecture will be broadcast on BBC One and iPlayer on Monday 6 December at 22:35 GMT.

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