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The rollout: 3. The researcher

Anna Blakney at the Imperial College London laboratory, 24th February 2020 (Photography by Amit Lennon)

This is the third part of a four-part series. See also our profiles of the district nurse bringing hope to vulnerable patients,  the people who turned Salisbury Cathedral into a mass vaccine centre and the volunteers putting their bodies on the line for new jabs

Anna Blakney
Vaccine researcher

It’s fair to say that Anna Blakney is better at making vaccines than she is at performing country music. But while her version of Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’ perhaps wasn’t the most note-perfect cover of the song ever performed, it was for a good cause.

Last autumn Blakney was contacted by Team Halo, a joint endeavour by the UN and the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to educate the public about Covid-19 vaccines and combat misinformation via social media. “It had already been a surreal year and now I had somebody from the UN calling me, trying to get me on TikTok,” she recalls. “I thought it was some kind of scam.” Once convinced of the scheme’s authenticity, she signed up to the app and began making short videos in which she answered other users’ questions about vaccines and showed viewers round her laboratory at Imperial College London.

“I’d never been on TikTok before, and my perception was that it was just a silly social media site where people do dance routines,” Blakney says. “But what’s great about it is that it offers a palatable amount of information for people. As scientists we’re used to communicating in hour-long lectures, but on TikTok you have to boil the information down to under a minute, and that makes it engaging and entertaining.”

As scientists we’re used to communicating in hour-long lectures, but on TikTok you have to boil the information down to under a minute”

The American scientist’s profile on TikTok grew rapidly and the self-styled ‘Vaccine Queen’ now has more than 200,000 followers and almost 3.5 million ‘likes’. By encouraging so many Gen Z-ers to get jabbed, while getting them excited about science and countering some of the misinformation spreading on social media, Blakney has helped realise Team Halo’s strategy of targeting the social media platform with the youngest user base. After a series of videos in which Blakney explained how vaccines are made and how they work, she recorded her version of Dolly’s signature song. Inspired by the news that the country music star had part-funded the Moderna vaccine, she tweaked the lyrics to describe an average working day in her lab, where she was part of a team led by Professor Robin Shattock working on the development of a next-generation Covid-19 vaccine.

When news first emerged from China in January 2020 about an outbreak of a novel coronavirus, Blakney and her colleagues had been working on a vaccine for rabies and Marburg viruses. They swiftly changed course. “It’s a bit embarrassing, really,” Blakney remembers. “At the start of the pandemic Robin came into my office and said ‘I think we should make a vaccine for the coronavirus’, and I said ‘That’s jumping on the bandwagon – it’s probably not going to be that big’. Thankfully he didn’t take my advice.”

By early March the Imperial College team was entirely focused on making a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine. Like Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, theirs would be a RNA vaccine, which teaches cells how to make a protein to trigger an immune response. But the self-amplifying vaccine Blakney worked on is even more ambitious than the groundbreaking jabs that have played such a key role in the UK rollout to date. The molecules of RNA generate copies of themselves in the cell, meaning that the doses could be 50 to 100 times smaller than the ones used by Pfizer or Moderna and still have a similar effect. A single dose could be produced at a fraction of the cost and far more people could be reached with each batch.

By early March the Imperial College team was entirely focused on making a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine

In July 2021 the Imperial team announced that in trials its self-amplifying vaccine – given in doses as small as 0.1 micrograms (the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 30 and 100 micrograms respectively) – generated immune responses against Covid-19 in 87 percent of recipients with no short-term safety concerns. The team is now focusing on modifying the vaccine to focus on emerging variants.

Blakney, meanwhile, left London and is continuing her research on self-replicating RNA vaccines from her new lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Although we’re now more than half a year into the rollout in the UK and Canada, she still encounters misinformation about vaccines – that they cause infertility, that blood clots are common and they aren’t needed if you’ve previously had the virus. She’s even accused by conspiracy theorists of being a paid shill for Big Pharma (“Oh I wish, please sponsor me Pfizer!” she jokes). Despite the accusations and occasional trolling, however, she still enjoys sharing her passion with people around the world.

In June 2021, as Team Halo’s experts on TikTok notched up over 100 million views, the UK’s Office of National Statistics reported that one in eight people aged between 16 and 29 are still hesitant about getting vaccinated. Blakney is still on TikTok every few days, dancing to hip-hop while urging viewers to get their second doses, or just telling followers who wear masks that they’re awesome. Ultimately, though, TikTok remains her side project. Blakney is now the principal investigator of her own lab – and the cutting-edge vaccine technology scientists such as her are working on could save countless lives in the years to come.

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #42 of Delayed Gratification

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