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The Oxford Vaccine Trials: A View From the Front

24 April 2021

a hand in a blue glove holding a syringe
Susanne Hodgson

This feature story first appeared in Cross Keys 2021.

Dr Susanne Hodgson is a Research Fellow and Lecturer in Clinical Medicine at St Peter's College. Her interest in medicine began in secondary school, and she qualified as a doctor in 2004.

‘I was particularly interested in infection and immunity, so I decided to specialise as an infectious diseases doctor.’

Fast forward to March 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic looming, and Dr Hodgson had a decision to make. She could temporarily leave her own research and go back to the hospital to work as a full-time doctor, or she could use her knowledge of clinical trials to help assess the new COVID-19 vaccine developed by the University.

Knowing where she could be most useful, she joined the team working on the Oxford vaccine. 

‘The collaboration was unprecedented. Over 250 experienced vaccinology specialists came together to work on this vaccine.’

When the call went out for trial participants, the public responded in their droves.

‘It was astonishing. We had enough participants sign up within days, which is unheard of. It was a very rigorous process. No corners were cut. It happened because there was a commitment from all parties to move quickly and dedicate resources.’

Working with colleagues, Dr Hodgson helped design the study to ensure that the team collected the right data. ‘This was vital for determining whether the vaccine actually worked.’

They proceeded with a randomised controlled trial – the gold standard for testing vaccine efficacy.

‘In a randomised trial you give half the participants the vaccine you are testing and you give the other half either a placebo or a control vaccine.’

Neither the participants nor clinicians were told who had received which vaccine. ‘If you knew you had received the COVID vaccine, perhaps that might change your behaviour meaning you might be more likely to be exposed to COVID which could bias the results. Likewise, the staff did not know what vaccine each participant had received, so we would not be biased when we interpreted their data.’

Trial participants were then monitored over time until a set number of people in the study were diagnosed with COVID-19.

‘We had a large study including more than 20,000 trial participants in the UK and abroad. When we reached a predetermined number of infected study participants a statistician would unblind the data and see which vaccine the affected individuals had received.’ Thankfully the data clearly showed more cases in the group that had received the control vaccines, showing the COVID vaccine worked.

While working on the vaccine trial, Dr Hodgson still worked on-call as a doctor.

‘Because I was doing the trials, I wasn’t in hospital as much as some of my colleagues. There was concern about exposure to the virus, but everyone carried on because that is what you do when you work in a hospital.

I would go to the hospital in my clothes, get changed into my scrubs, do my shift, come home, get to the door, go straight up to the shower. When got to my front door, my children would hear me and run to greet me. I had to tell them not to come too close, which they found hard to understand.’

Dr Hodgson has now returned to her work on clinical medicine, but she tells us that the Oxford vaccine research group is working hard looking at new variants and vaccines to combat them.

‘I didn’t think we would be in this position with this many vaccines, all showing high levels of effectiveness. Throughout this pandemic, vaccine development has accelerated at an unprecedented rate. This is not only going to help with COVID. Hopefully, what we are learning will help us design better vaccines in the future for other diseases too.’

Dr Susanne Hodgson is a Research Fellow and Lecturer in Clinical Medicine at St Peter’s College and an NIHR Academic Lecturer in Infectious Diseases at the University of Oxford. She also works as a physician specialising in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology based at the Oxford University Hospitals.


Crop nurse with syringe on beige background, photo by Artem Podrez (via Pexels)

Image of Susanne Hodgson, photo provided by Susanne Hodgson

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