Interview with Dr Mustapha Bittaye

One of the core scientists involved in the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.

Mojatu: Who is Dr Mustapha Bittaye?

Dr Bittaye: I am from The Gambia which is arguably the smallest country in Africa. I moved to the UK in 2009 to study Biomedical Science at the University of Westminster and later proceeded to Aberdeen University for a PhD in Microbial Proteomics. After completion, I joined The Jenner Institute to support in the clinical development of vaccines against emerging and outbreak viral pathogens and so far I have been involved in the development of the current Oxford/AstraZeneca Vaccine.

Mojatu: How did your journey in Medical Research start? 

Dr Bittaye: When I graduated from high school in The Gambia, I had the opportunity to work at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit, a British research institute based in The Gambia, as a Research Assistant and later rose through the ranks as Senior Research Assistant supporting some of the disease control programmes including malaria, nutrition, child health and immunity. It was at the MRC that I was exposed to the area of medical research and I got in love with it because it gives me the opportunity to be able to do what I love doing best which is giving back to my community through my work. By the time I moved into the UK, I already had experience working in the lab, but I did not know how to apply that experience into something beneficial to society. So, part of my PhD at Aberdeen University was involved in discovering biomarkers and some of their applications were to see whether they could be turned into a therapeutic product which includes a vaccine. This is how and where my interest in vaccines developed which was reinforced by that project. Upon completion, I realised that I needed to go to an institution where  vaccine research is at the top of their agenda and are the best in the field hence joining The Jenner Institute which is the best in the UK for vaccine development. After joining, I was involved in the development of a vaccine against a coronavirus called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus where I spent just over a year working on the trial and the work our team has done in that trial lucky became the blueprint that was needed for us to deliver the currently licensed Oxford/Astrazeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Mojatu: Being part of a winning team tasked with the development of the COVID-19 vaccine would have been a humbling experience, how do you feel?

Dr Bittaye: Well it is a proud moment for me, and the entire team involved in this breakthrough but also a proud moment for the volunteers that participated in the trial to make it possible and also a proud moment for British Science in general. As scientists, this is what we are all dreaming for that is being able to take our work from the benches in the lab into a product that could be beneficial to the world at large and what we have been developing is not a vaccine that can be used only in the UK but one that is currently being used worldwide including my own country, The Gambia. For me, what I always wanted was being able to do science anywhere in the world that can benefit the people back home in my country and the world at large and being able to achieve that is definitely a proud moment for me and the team because this do not come very often in this field. One of the motivating factors that kept me going was, in hindsight, I was very convinced that the vaccine was going to be the gamechanger in the fight against COVID-19 in the sense that it is not only for use in developed countries but also suitable for developing countries and my family will benefit from it as well. 

Mojatu: AstraZeneca is very much in the news lately, what would you tell the layman about this ground-breaking scientific feat?

Dr Bittaye: If you consider what we have done in the scientific community, it is like the modern day equivalence of landing human on the moon because in the history of vaccine development, we have never developed a vaccine within a year and we have been able to achieve that as a scientific community and as a human race thanks to the massive collaboration and support from the society in general. For me, people should take this as a human triumph knowing that by coming together and applying our human ingenuity, there is nothing that we cannot achieve. The vaccine we have developed in collaboration with AstraZeneca together with many other vaccines that have been developed, serve as tools that are needed in our armoury in the fight against COVID and no single vaccine will be sufficient enough to fight this virus because it is a global pandemic. We need multiple vaccines to succeed because no single vaccine could be produced at a quantity needed to fight the virus since it affects every country across the globe. Of course there are different technologies that have been used in the development of these vaccines but with regards to the efficacy and the safety of the different vaccines, all of the approved vaccines so far, have the same level of efficacy which is 100% when it comes to protecting people from severe COVID disease, hospitalization and death. So, there is no preference when it comes to the different types of COVID vaccines, nonetheless, based on the different technologies used in their development, different vaccines cost different amount of money, require different infrastructure in terms of storage and handling. Whichever vaccine you are offered, take it, and know that you are getting the same benefit as the others are providing. 

Mojatu: Is the vaccine safe for everyone to take?

Dr Bittaye: All these vaccines have undergone rigorous safety and efficacy testing in tens of thousands of people during the trial and they are very safe. Now that we have rolled out these licensed vaccines in the real world, we are beginning to have real world data which shows that there are no other side effects that are found in people receiving the vaccine that were not found in people that took part during the trials. Basically, all of the side effects are mild and moderate and no severe side effects have been associated with any of the vaccines so far. Just in UK alone, nearly 30 million people have been vaccinated which is almost half of the adult population and the real-world data coming from the vaccination programme, shows no severe side effects associated with these vaccines. They are safe, the monitoring process is still ongoing and if anything comes up contrary to what we have seen so far, it would be reported to the regulatory bodies involved and communicated to the public and whereas it is required to stop the programme, it will be stopped. Thus, the benefit of taking the vaccine outweighs the risk of not taking it. 

Mojatu: What would you tell young people who claim to have strong immune system and that they do not need to be vaccinated?Dr Bittaye: We do know that COVID follows an age-related disease pattern, that is the older you are, the more likely you are to have a severe disease from COVID especially if you have an underline health condition but we have also seen data coming from hospitals in the UK and across the world reporting a greater number of young people ending up in intensive care with COVID. So, what I have to tell people is that the best protection is to protect yourself from catching the virus in the first place by observing all the public health guidelines because we are still learning about the virus. The vaccines have demonstrated in some data showing that it can protect people from catching the virus, but such data are no strong enough. So, the vaccines do not provide 100% protection from catching the virus but, what is clear and refreshing to know is that the people that are taking the vaccine would be protected from symptomatic infection and sever diseases, hospitalization, and death. My advice to young people is to take the vaccine even if not for the sake of self-protection, but to protect others around them because the vaccines have been shown to stop the chain of transmission. If you take it, there is high chance that if you catch the virus, you will not pass it on to others and that is what we call ‘hard immunity’ because when more people are vaccinated, we would eventually get to a point whereby the level of transmission will be low and the vulnerable ones who cannot take the vaccine due to some other reasons would also be protected. 

Mojatu: Recently, the Oxford AstraZeneca has been criticised by some countries for reports of blood clot despite backings from WHO and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) that there is no indication of a link between the vaccine and the claim. What assurance would you give to the public?

Dr Bittaye: I cannot say anything more than what WHO and EMA have said, that there is no link found. Yes, there was a need for an independent investigation to take place and the results came out to say that there are no relations between the vaccine and the blood clots and that the vaccine is safe and can be used.

Mojatu: What is the difference between the first dose and the second dose?

Dr Bittaye: The first dose primes your immune system and trains it to be able to deal with the virus if it encounters it while the second one is a booster dose. The priming of the immune system generated from the first dose is boosted and amplified by the second one which makes the immune response more durable, robust, and stronger. The twelve-week window between the first dose and the second one still gives adequate protection.

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