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Interview: Marion Watson, clinical research scientist

14 January 2022

‘More variants of concern are likely. This isn’t going to be the last pandemic’

I work at the Jenner Institute in the Nuffield Department of Medicine at Oxford University. We are unusual for a university in being able to manufacture clinical-grade vaccines. We also work on malaria, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases.

After making 700 doses for the first trial of a Covid-19 vaccine,
we partnered with Astra-Zeneca, who agreed to manufacture and distribute it without profit during the pandemic, and indefinitely in low- and middle-income countries. We are thrilled that it’s being used in over 170 countries, most of whom can’t afford the more expensive vaccines.

As head of operations, I do a range of management and support activities for the clinical phase of vaccine trials.
The work has restarted on our other vaccine trials, such as for malaria, TB, rabies, and Ebola, alongside continuing Covid trials, including the Beta variant.

There are already thousands of variants.
Most of them fizzle out, but more variants of concern are likely. This isn’t going to be the last pandemic.

Scientists have been expecting and planning for a pandemic for some years.
The name Disease X was coined a few years ago by the World Health Organization, and many thought it would be another flu — possibly from another species — or a haemorrhagic virus like Ebola.

I’m emotionally and physically tired.
Lockdown hasn’t been good for anyone’s heath. But this is most rewarding work I ever done — though, of course, that’s tempered by the fact that people are dying. Key is that I’m part of a big team who’ve worked long hours for many months, and I’m lucky to have a husband who took on all the household tasks.

Like everybody, not being able to see family felt painful at times.
We missed our son’s 30th birthday, our grandson’s first and second birthdays, and Christmas was very lonely.

I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of London,
working on inherited diseases such as muscular dystrophy. I spent 18 years in drug discovery and pre-clinical development in industry, and then moved back to academia when my son started school, in clinical-research support and teaching.

The day our vaccine received its emergency licence on 30 December 2020 was wonderful,
but it marvellous seeing other vaccine successes. We’ve always said we were in a race against the virus, not other vaccine developers. There are over 100 vaccine development groups, but we’re not fighting each other. It’s a war against the virus.

No drug or vaccine is fully without side effects,
but vaccines are some of the safest drugs ever developed. Ours are made from decades of research on the viral vectors that carry our vaccines into the cells of recipients. Also, we had ongoing trials using the spike protein of another coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS); so we were ready to go.

Safety’s never been compromised.
Our speed’s been due to prior knowledge, a hugely experienced team, an in-house manufacturing facility, multiple groups across the country becoming research sites, rapid access to funding, and the MHRA and ethics committees giving precedence to Covid research scrutiny — and, most importantly, thousands of willing volunteers, who are amazing.

I started addressing vaccine hesitancy because of a Black church in Bristol and their concerns.
I became an active part of the online community at Christ Church, Downend, during lockdown, where my son is the curate. Chris Dobson, the ecumenical- and global-partnerships officer for Bristol diocese, asked me, as well as local researchers and health- and social-care providers, to join an online vaccine-hesitancy session with representatives from the Black and Asian communities in Bristol.

This led to a consultation with the House of Bishops from the Church of Uganda, and health-care providers.
I was also able to involve a colleague from the Jenner laboratories who hails from the Gambia. Information was then cascaded across the country, including using social media for good rather than for myths and misleading information that inevitably grabs people’s attention (and therefore makes money for platforms).

We recently held a similar session for senior clergy and officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
and hope to continue the model for other countries in Africa and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion.

In the UK, hesitancy is often about “It’s my right not to be vaccinated, to do whatever I want to do.”
In Africa, it’s mostly misinformation and real fear of death, which is a powerful emotion. There are conspiracy theories and distrust of government, often because of colonialism.

We invite people’s questions rather than telling them what we think,
and their questions reflect current social-media messages. We’re always asked about safety, and how we could make a vaccine so quickly. People don’t realise is that it’s the protocols around clinical trials which take so long, and people bent over backwards to complete these quickly.

There are collective groups of scientists fighting misinformation on social media,
such as the UN-backed “Team Halo”, but this can often feel like fighting a losing battle. Inevitably, people click on the bad news first. Across the UK, the things people put online are scary because they’re so wrong.

My father was Anglican.
He died in Nigeria on a business trip when I was seven, and is buried there. All we have is photos of an unknown location. My mother was from Ireland, and a Roman Catholic. I went to a Roman Catholic convent school in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, and I grew up in a Christian home with an older sister and younger brother, but I was 17 before I came to a personal, mature faith of my own.

I met my husband in our first week at Imperial College London at a Christian Union meeting.
Next year is our ruby anniversary. Home life’s too quiet since our son moved away. I miss the bustle of boys turning up after school or for sleepovers. We’re active in our local church, and volunteer for activities to fill the void.

My first experience of God was through a weekly evening prayer meeting at our local church:
nothing dramatic, but, seeing the faith and hearing the experiences of others, it led me to question what I believed and why.

My faith’s sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker
— maybe half a mustard seed. I’m a scientist. I see the evidence of God in the world, in people, answers to prayer too frequent to be coincidence — I like the term “Godincidence”. I loved a poster at university that said: “All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator I have not seen.”

People who take advantage of those weaker than themselves make me angry.
I was bullied at school and at an after-school club. You never forget the hurt, but it helps you look out for others.

And anti-vax social media based on false information make me angry.
I support the right to choose, but all the evidence suggests that as many people as possible getting vaccinated is the way to save the most lives and end the pandemic.

Knowing my family are safe,
and spending time with them, makes me happy. We’ve had a lot of illness in the family, but we’re seeing progress, if not complete healing yet.

The pandemic’s taught me to look for the good things,
and live life for now. I’ve lost close friends during lockdown, including one very suddenly to Covid-19. And to stop complaining about little things. I still do, but less so.

My two-year-old grandson’s laugh is so infectious.
You can’t do anything but join in.

Looking back at history gives me hope.
Mankind is resilient and adaptive.

God must be fed up with me asking for things daily.
I remind myself to be thankful as well. I use the ten-finger model of five thank-yous, or praise and five supplications, though I don’t limit myself.

I’d prefer to be locked in a cathedral,
not a church — to remind me I’m insignificant, but also because I have severe claustrophobia — and with great Christian scientists like Gregor Mendel, the geneticist, and Isaac Newton, who spent more time on Bible study than physics. Samuel Morse might even manage to teach me Morse code. My husband’s a radio ham, and I could surprise him.

Dr Watson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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