Crabs and tea cups: British exhibit lifts the lid on Covid vaccine race


Visitors pose with a sculpture entitled "The Sphere That Changed The World" by Angela Palmer at 'Injecting Hope' exhibition at the Science Museum in London. Photo: AFP

From a scientist's laptop to the syringe used to inject Britain's first Covid vaccine dose, an exhibition that opened recently in London recounts the quest to produce a coronavirus jab through objects.

The Injecting Hope exhibition at the Science Museum "explores the worldwide effort to develop vaccines at pandemic speed", looking at key moments in their design, trial, manufacture and rollout, says deputy director Julia Knights.

Items on display include artworks, notes taken by British vaccine chief Kate Bingham during early meetings to decide the country's strategy, and the syringe used to administer its first dose.

Machines used to manufacture the vaccine are also on show along with personal artefacts of those at the heart of the battle to beat the virus.

They include the laptop and mug that Teresa Lambe, co-developer of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, relied upon during a weekend of intense work to calculate what its chemical composition should be.

"Once they had an understanding of the genetic make-up of this new virus, she essentially sat at home, on her laptop, in her pyjamas, drinking lots of cups of tea, designing a vaccine," explained exhibition curator Stewart Emmens.

A visitor poses next to a visualisation of Covid-19 with the pink section representing the spike protein at the 'Injecting Hope' exhibition in London. Photo: AFP A visitor poses next to a visualisation of Covid-19 with the pink section representing the spike protein at the 'Injecting Hope' exhibition in London. Photo: AFP

"We have a laptop, we have a mug and we have a T-shirt on display here. It's nice, in amongst all the science, to really drive it home that there are people behind this, just normal people doing their jobs."

The museum began collecting objects related to Covid in February 2020 as "objects associated with epidemics and pandemics are largely missing from historic collections", said Emmens.

'Crucial' crabs

The first section features news footage of lockdowns and images of deserted capital cities, empty shelves, at-home schoolchildren and food delivery apps, taking visitors back to the pre-vaccine world.

After exploring the development and testing of the products, visitors then get a glimpse into the unprecedented plans to administer the vaccine to Britain's 67 million citizens.

Along with Bingham's scribbled notes are maps integral to Britain's successful rollout.

"When we collected these, they were just plastered on the walls of NHS headquarters," explained Emmens.

"Most people would think... vaccinating countries would be a very much a digital project, very much a big data, number-crunching exercise.

"But here we have these physical maps, which were used quite early to work out where best to place vaccine centres."

He also hopes that the show will reassure those nervous about taking the vaccine due to its speedy arrival on the market.

"Nothing focuses the mind like a global pandemic," said Emmens.

"The vaccines were following the same processes of approval, and trialing and testing as would normally be the case," he said.

"But very cleverly, things were streamlined, overlapped in a way that gave the same results as you would get normally, without cutting corners."

Sitting incongruously among the gleaming machines are also a collection of crabs.

"We do have some examples of horseshoe crabs within the exhibition, which many visitors will be very surprised by," said Emmens.

The blood from the horseshoe crabs is highly sensitive to bacterial contamination, and is used to make sure the vaccine and the vials that carry it are clean, he explained.

"So they've played a... crucial if unlikely role in the vaccine story." - AFP

Article type: free
User access status:
Subscribe now to our Premium Plan for an ad-free and unlimited reading experience!

Next In Culture

Nigerian artist uses AI to show the bright side of old age
Weekend for the arts: back to the kampung, 'kenyalang circus' hits town
Get lifted by the stories of Sabah's humble baskets at this KL exhibition
A.I. uncovers unknown play by Spanish great in library archive
Malaysian author’s debut novel longlisted for Dublin Literary Award 2023
Japanese author Haruki Murakami to publish first new novel in six years
DC Comics fandom celebrates return of 'Swamp Thing' to big screen
Ai Weiwei launches new exhibit, tries to understand studio demolitions in China
Art therapy: expressing distressing emotions when words won't come
World champion says Rubik's Cube and violin go hand in hand

Others Also Read