Unlike coronavirus which kills up to one percent of the people it infects, according to FullFact, Nipah has a death rate of 50 percent. Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, who helped develop the revolutionary Oxford AstraZeneca jab, warned how unprepared the world is should it mutate a highly transmissible form – like coronavirus did with the Delta variant.
Speaking at an event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with Oxford colleague Dr Catherine Green, Dame Sarah said her work had gone “backwards” since the pandemic.
She said that governments across the world should develop and stockpile vaccines so they are prepared if a pandemic breaks out.
Health workers and people in other key roles should also be pre-vaccinated so they are ready to respond and do not play a part in spreading the virus, she said.
She said: “We’ve actually gone backwards in terms of the work we’re doing on development of vaccines for the outbreak pathogens before the pandemic.
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“It’s just really slowed right down, trying to get that moving again is really difficult and the funding still isn’t there to move that on.
“We learned in the pandemic that we could do things faster, we could do things better, we want to be applying those lessons, but we still need to get the funding in place to do that.
“We need stockpiles of vaccines against these pathogens we already know about because how’s it going to look if suddenly there’s a big Nipah outbreak that starts to spread around the world?
“We’ve known about that for years and we started making a vaccine five years ago, but we haven’t done it yet, it’s not finished.”
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Scientists believe Nipah virus has the potential to cause a pandemic and recently a 12-year-old boy died in India having become infected.
“Something everybody is very much aware of now, is how as SARS-CoV-2 has spread through the world,” Dame Sarah said.
“It’s mutated, it’s evolved and what we’ve ended up with is the Delta variant which is very highly transmissible.
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“If we get a Delta variant of Nipah virus then suddenly we’ve got a highly transmissible virus with a 50 percent fatality rate.
“We can make vaccines, we can have stockpiles, we can immunise the health care workers in the regions where the outbreaks are most likely to happen.
“To protect the healthcare workers themselves and that’s really important because we want them to be able to go and do their job and respond to the start of a new outbreak.
“But if we don’t protect them, they get infected and then it’s often healthcare workers inadvertently spread the outbreak because they go back to their communities or their homes and then they’re infected and they spread it.
“We have to make sure they’re fully protected, and you can do that with really good personal protective equipment, but you do much better if you have a vaccine.”