AMONG the various announcements at the last meeting of Carmarthenshire Council was a reference to a scientist who grew up in the area and is now working on the Oxford-AstraZena coronavirus vaccine.
With help from Trelech councillor Jean Lewis, the Local Democracy Reporter Service tracked her down.
Emma Bolam was raised in Pen-y-bont, around eight miles north-west of Carmarthen, and went to Ysgol Gyfun Bro Myrddin in Carmarthen until 1989.
She studied environmental biology at Oxford Brookes University and stayed in Oxford ever since.
Her parents still live in Pen-y-bont – and her best friend from school, Lynne Edwards, happens to be the immunisation coordinator for Hywel Dda University Health Board, administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
Emma works at the Jenner Institute, which develops vaccines and is based in Oxford University’s department of medicine. She is head of production at the institute’s clinical bio-manufacturing facility.
What were you working on before the coronavirus hit?
We were halfway through manufacturing a vaccine against Ebola; this was put part-finished into the freezer as soon as we were asked to start manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccine.
When did the Jenner Institute switch its attention to the coronavirus?
Very early in January 2020, as soon as news emerged from China regarding a new infection causing pneumonia-like symptoms in a cluster of cases; later identified as a novel coronavirus.
When you first started hearing about the cases in Wuhan, did you have an inclination that this virus might cause such widespread disruption?
I remember clearly first reading about these very early cases in a short news article on Christmas Day 2019. I was staying with my parents in Carmarthenshire for Christmas (I haven’t seen them since).
I thought this was interesting and immediately thought about our role in developing vaccines against new emerging pathogens. I imagined it would be localised and the infection contained in the Wuhan area it originated in – I never expected it to become the pandemic we’re all experiencing now.
Describe how the last 10 or so months have been like from a work point of view?
February to April were by far the busiest months for me as I was manufacturing the vaccine for the Oxford phase I clinical trial during this time. The days were spent in a hands-on capacity actually producing the vaccine in our ‘cleanrooms’ and the evenings were spent making sure our documents were correct and ready for the next step of the process – it was relentless.
It was such a whirlwind due to the sheer urgency of producing the vaccine in record-breaking time, which we successfully did, as on April 2 I filled the first ever batch of clinical-grade vaccine into vials and it was administered to the first trial volunteer on April 23.
From May onwards my involvement has included sharing information with AstraZeneca and other groups involved in the large-scale production of the vaccine. Incidentally, we have now finished manufacturing the postponed Ebola vaccine.
Describe your average working day?
I’d like it to be a bit more ‘average’ than it actually is!
I manage teams of production and research scientists so I make sure work schedules are on target and work is progressing as planned. Although I was actually making the Covid-19 vaccine my role is usually more office-based these days (after over 25 years working in a laboratory).
As we’re in such a highly-regulated industry a huge amount of time has to be devoted to ensuring compliance with regulations, writing and reviewing documents and liaising with our quality team and collaborators.
However, it does vary considerably – one day I may be conducting an audit the next I may be cleaning our cleanrooms or feeding a flask of cells.
What was it like when the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for use?
It was the culmination of a vast effort from an incredibly devoted team – it was amazing and emotional, made even more so as it happened on my 50th birthday!
What are the challenges of manufacturing a vaccine in normal times, and what are the extra challenges now?
For us, as we produce vaccines for clinical trials which have never been produced before, it’s the unknown. Each virus used for each vaccine is different – some grow happily in cells and produce well, others don’t. Some are easy to purify, others aren’t.
We have to optimise how best to manufacture them to get the maximum output in as short a time as possible, as these are incredibly expensive products to make at this very early stage in their development.
As these are all novel vaccines we have to make sure they are tested appropriately and make sure they meet all their specifications before they can be used in the clinic, as the safety of our clinical trial volunteers is the most important consideration.
We have to adhere to the MHRA’s regulations. Vaccines must be kept sterile so must be produced in a highly controlled manner; when I filled the Covid-19 vaccine I was working in an isolator wearing three pairs of gloves.
Now, all the restrictions imposed by the pandemic are proving a challenge – maintaining social distancing at work and protecting ourselves and our colleagues. We still have other vaccines that need to be manufactured and tested and we can’t do this from home so we have to ensure staff can still come on site to do the work safely.
Do you know people who become seriously ill or even died from Covid, and has that given you extra motivation?
I’m very fortunate, none of my friends or family have become seriously ill or died. My elderly parents have been very careful and sensible since the beginning, which is why I haven’t seen them in over a year.
Hearing the daily death rates and reading the horror stories of the effects this pandemic has had on families and also on NHS staff is always distressing and upsetting. But thinking more positively, it’s encouraging and rewarding to hear the number of people being vaccinated is also continuing to steadily rise, and knowing our team played such a big part in being able to make this happen.
We’ve probably never seen scientists so often on the news or heard them on the radio – is this a good thing?
Yes. I really hope the very old fashioned but still often used term ‘boffin’ dies a death soon. The term ‘scientist’ doesn’t just have to refer to the professor in charge of a department but also includes all the technicians and apprentices without whom none of this work could happen.
I hope, by getting many more scientists into the limelight because of the pandemic, this will encourage more children, especially girls, to consider science as a career.
Do you think the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will reduce community transmission, and if it does how would this be achieved?
“That is the overall goal. Although protection is not immediate after being given the vaccine, and not all vaccines are 100% effective, it is hoped that the vast majority will develop sufficient immunity to the virus to dramatically reduce its transmission in the community.
This of course can only happen if people get the vaccine when they are offered it.