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The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine and the missed opportunity for professional science communicators

January 20, 2022

I recently read the book VAXXERS, by Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green. 

The book is a fascinating account of the brain power, collaboration, and sheer hard work that underpinned the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. It offers real insight into the huge potential that effective collaborations between academia, regulators, and industry possess. But one of the things I was most struck by – and is highlighted by the authors themselves – was the lack of a communication strategy. 

In the book, Professor Gilbert notes that if it all happened again, they would add political experts to the team involved in vaccine development. I would suggest an amend to this, instead adding both political experts AND professional science communicators. 

Oxford University, where the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was developed

What does a professional science communicator do?

A professional science communicator is a person with a scientific background who can understand the why’s and how’s of complex science and turn it into an easy-to-understand story. It is this idea of ‘story’ that sits at the heart of this growing profession, as it is stories that people most connect with.

One of the challenges with the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was that while the team were focusing their efforts on vaccine development, manufacturing, and trials, the rapidly changing story remained untold – and in this vacuum, the media told their own stories, which were sometimes misleading and occasionally inaccurate. 

This contributed to the misunderstanding of a trial pause to investigate a suspected adverse event, misunderstanding, and misreporting of the efficacy numbers (when published in a press release prior to the peer-reviewed publication – normal practice required by law), and public panic in the wake of the emerging and small risk of blood clots. In real terms, while hard to measure, there is little doubt these factors increased vaccine hesitancy, which in turn will have led to unnecessary deaths. 

While it is too simplistic to suggest that story telling would have solved these problems, my professional experience suggests that it would have certainly helped. It would have better protected the scientists to focus on the work that really matters, by removing the pressure on their time to correct misunderstanding, and perhaps more important, reduced the emotional burden caused by the sense that this is their responsibility. 

Was keeping quiet the best approach?

As the world realised that a small group of scientists at the University of Oxford and their industry partners were working on a vaccine that had the potential to end the pandemic, the scale of interest erupted. 

Professor Gilbert and Dr Green both reflect on this period in the book, noting the challenge of juggling media responsibilities with their actual work. Eventually, the University adopted the strategy of keeping quiet and ignoring the background noise. 

This no doubt created a certain degree of protection that the team needed to focus on their work, but it may have missed an opportunity to continue shaping public understanding of the ongoing trials, their design, and some of the key principles – all with the goal of landing the results on a smoother runway.

For example, could a story have been told which explained in advance that two efficacy numbers were going to be presented and why? Could a story have been told which explained the principle of clinical trials pausing to investigate suspected adverse events? Could the story of the ChadOx platform been told in such a way as to reduce the sense of the vaccine being dangerous because it was ’new and untested technology’? 

VAXXERS is a great book, and very well written. It is the story of two scientists and their colleagues working under immense pressure to produce a vaccine that is now a central tool in overcoming the pandemic. It is also a story of two humans, thrust into the limelight and expected to navigate the complexities of explaining their work in the face of questions, mistrust, and misunderstanding. 

The science that impacts our lives today and will continue to do so in the future is fabulously complex. That is an impressive measure of human ingenuity, but as science becomes more complex – the need to break it down and explain it becomes greater, particularly when that science has such a huge impact on people’s lives, as it did in the case of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. 

It is this need that sits at the heart of the growing profession of science communication and sits at the heart of the support offered by Enzyme Communications

Adam Goodband
Co-founder and Science Communication Director

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