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"We all have a responsibility”: The King's student who worked on COVID-19 vaccine shares his experience

16 February 2021

Vaccines to protect against the coronavirus would not be possible without those who worked on the trials. King's PhD student Rhys Brown explains how he brought his lab experience to the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial last year.

In May 2020, Rhys Brown, a PhD student from the Centre for Host Microbiome Interactions at the Faculty of Dentistry, Oral & Craniofacial Sciences was redeployed within the NHS. He was assigned as a lab technician as part of the Oxford AstraZeneca trial at St Thomas’ Hospital, alongside eight other technicians from King’s College London.

First impressions of the work were positive: “I could tell during the briefings before we started that I was going to be part of something special”.

Rhys’ role within the trial was small but vital. Blood samples were taken before and after doses of the vaccine were given to trial participants. His task was to collect and process the samples, centrifuge them to collect the serum from the blood, and freeze it. The samples, alongside paperwork, were sent to Oxford University for analysis.

The work requires concentration – a small error could affect the whole trial.

I’d worked in clinical trials before and I knew that it was a slow process. This time, however, it felt like we were inside something special. In Spring 2020 there was no end in sight. Doing this job meant I was actually helping to move things along.– Rhys Brown

Now, 15 million people in the UK have received a dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine. Rhys is particularly proud of his work on the AstraZeneca vaccine as it can be kept in normal refrigerated conditions, in contrast to the Pfizer vaccine which needs to be stored at -70C. The simple storage ability ensures the AstraZeneca vaccine can be widely used in less developed parts of the world.

Rhys’ role in developing the vaccine has sparked interest among his friends and family. He explains: “Most people would never get a chance to meet someone involved in this, or they don’t usually care about the work done in the labs! COVID-19 is such a global problem and there is interest in the development of vaccines like never before. I’ve been able to have conversations with people who might have been sceptical and I’ve helped allay fears. I’m just a small cog in the wheel so all I do is share my experience on the trial.”

While Rhys was a small part of the trial, he knew early in the process that the vaccine would be successful. He said: “We heard through the grapevine that it was successful and that it had good preliminary data. From my background I thought it would be a good vaccine given that it wasn’t a completely novel form.”

His work on the trial ceased in October when his PhD, which involves studying fungal toxins and is unrelated to the coronavirus, began.

He added: “I feel very privileged to have been able to work on this. It will be something I can tell my children and grandchildren. I have so much respect for the people who work on the frontline and who are giving up everything and putting themselves in harm’s way. But we all have a responsibility, whether that’s being on the frontline, doing what I did, or staying at home.”

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