By the end of the year, vaccines created by labs in Oxford in England to Mainz in Germany to Cambridge, Massachusetts had produced regulatory-approved doses that would save millions of lives and change the course of the pandemic.
The remarkable story of the Covid-19 vaccine - from the round-the-clock work of brilliant scientists to the quiet commitment of vaccine trial volunteers - will be showcased in a major new exhibition which opens next year at London’s Science Museum.
“The pandemic and the vaccine program are what’s on everyone’s lips. This is something that’s obviously important to all of us,” says Natasha McEnroe, the museum’s Keeper of Medicine and curator of the exhibition that will open simultaneously in the UK, India and China. “And we are really keen to make this an international project because the pandemic, by definition, is global.”
The idea for an exhibition grew from the Science Museum’s Covid-19 collecting project, which saw curators scurrying to gather up objects as soon as the first alarm bells around the virus started to ring.
They were spurred on by mistakes of the past. From a medicine collection of well over 150,000 objects, the museum holds just five relics relating to the Spanish flu of 1918, a pandemic that killed as many as 100 million people.
“Curators who are interested in the history of medicine are very alert to this sort of thing and realised as early as the super clever scientists (that) this is really significant. So we started collecting…trying to capture elements of the pandemic for future generations,” says Ms McEnroe.
As well as “tiny bits of ephemera” such as home tests, social distancing signs and handmade facemasks, in December 2020 two new artefacts joined the collection: the vial and syringe used in the historic first jab administered in the UK’s mass Covid-19 vaccination programme.
“And really, the exhibition came from that - it was it was clear that there were elements of the pandemic that were crucially important, and obviously, vaccination is one of them,” she says.
The Science Museum, which doubled as one of London’s most atmospheric vaccination centres until it reopened its galleries to the public in May, has partnered with the National Council of Science Museums in India and the Guangdong Science Centre in China to prepare the exhibition, opening in November 2022.
“We work together to create a shared vision, and that the three exhibitions open simultaneously, and then tour (in each country). So we’re all going to be looking at vaccination, as it relates to our own countries, but also with international elements in it,” says Ms McEnroe.
By shedding light on the behind-the-scenes vaccine development processes, the curators expect that one outcome of the exhibitions will be to address issues of vaccine hesitancy.
“By arming people with facts, we can actually play a really crucial role,” she says. “We are explaining that it’s not that this vaccine was suddenly discovered under a rock, it didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s building on years of vaccine research. Just simply by explaining all of those things, we hope it will be a really positive engagement for people.”
The London exhibition aims to reach out to young people considering careers in science, by highlighting heroes of the vaccination programme, such as Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green - the two Oxford scientists who delivered the AstraZeneca vaccine in record time.
“I’m also interested in the role of the volunteer - volunteers for trials, volunteers in the vaccine centres,” says Ms McEnroe. “The person who drives the lorry is just as important as the technician who’s got their head in the safety cabinet in the lab, who is just as important as the mathematician is cracking the code. It’s all of these different roles that linked together. That’s what we’re hoping will really inspire but also surprise visitors.”
It’s not all good news. The vaccine rollout has sharpened global inequalities, with only 0.4 per cent of doses administered in low-income countries.
“The exhibitions will cover areas of inequality in the vaccine rollout, and in particular how to get the vaccination programme to remote, rural areas. This huge undertaking will be a key part of the Indian vaccination story,” says Ms McEnroe.
From the traditional curiosities in glass cabinets, to digital engagement and events, Hunt for the Vaccine aims to illuminate the work behind what may come to be seen as one of history’s most significant scientific breakthroughs – achieved, says Ms McEnroe, through international collaboration that began with the sharing of the genome sequence.
“It’s that generosity of sharing information, so that everybody all over the world that weekend in January started working on that code. I think that sort of spirit of collaboration is really important,” she says.