Home | Industry & Research | From classroom detention to academic success: one man’s role in developing the AZ vaccine
Adam Ritchie (in the middle) and his colleagues at The Jenner Institute in Oxford. Picture: Supplied.

From classroom detention to academic success: one man’s role in developing the AZ vaccine

Lecturer and researcher Adam Ritchie spent his high school years in detention, but more recently the academic played a major role in the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine distribution, saving millions of lives. 

On his school report cards, Ritchie was described as smart but unfocused, playing in class and causing trouble. Years later, he is an accomplished academic at the University of Oxford. 

In high-school, Ritchie didn’t always get along with others, getting into the habit of fighting with other boys, which often got him into detention and a few suspensions.

“People would say I was a bit of a class clown or maybe an attention seeker who got in a little bit of trouble,” Ritchie told Campus Review.

In addition, school bored him, and he found himself often distracted and unfocused on the lessons, hiding at the back of the classroom to read a novel.

Yet, in year 10, things turned around for the future academic: he achieved a perfect score in science on the ICAS assessment, which aims to evaluate students on their ability to apply classroom learning in real-world scenarios using problem-solving skills.

Ritchie remembers thriving in these tests as he found them more stimulating than the ordinary classroom assessments. 

While he wasn’t particularly interested in grades, Ritchie’s ICAS results highlighted that he wasn’t ‘just’ a tedious teenager, he had potential.

“After the school got the test results, someone came into my classroom and there was a note that I had to go and see the deputy principal and I remember thinking 'Oh, God, what have I done?' 

“I really just remember the principal telling me 'Adam, what are we supposed to do with you?'" 

The principal went on to tell Ritchie about his perfect score in the science exam, congratulating him at the same time as being frustrated by the young man. 

“He just brought me in and it felt warm, but just an exasperation that he didn't know what to do with me.”

Later that same day, the principal saw Ritchie in detention once again, as he was picking up rubbish in the garden, he recalls the educator calling his name, looking at him, shaking his head and walking off. 

“I remember a strong sense of maybe I should be doing a little bit more.”

If Ritchie’s educators were somewhat exasperated with his behaviour, they believed in the young man's potential and decided to enrol him in an academic program with the University of New South Wales where he was paired up with a palaeontologist.

The program gave him the opportunity to spend some time on excavation sites where the researchers were looking at the association of megafauna with early First Nations people from Australia. 

Ritchie believes that his teachers knew at the time the experience might be interesting and eye opening for him.

“I've got a funny feeling but I'm not a hundred percent sure that maybe, I wasn't the 'classic student' who was usually put forward. 

“Maybe, my Year 10 science teacher who took a real interest in me and the school thought that a slightly alternative activity would pick my interest.”

The school assumption turned out to be exactly what Ritchie needed as it helped him become a better student. 

“I wasn’t perfect but I certainly did better; I paid more attention in class and started doing a bit more than the bare minimum.”

Following his first experience in academia, Ritchie went on to study microbiology and immunology at UNSW and graduated with a PhD in Immunology. 

The researcher believes his academic experience in Australia is what helped build his problem-solving skills as he and many other PhD candidates in the country had to be creative to answer their research questions as funding was scarce. 

“We had a limited amount of money, which meant really understanding the experiments inside and out and designing them really well in order to answer your research questions.

“I think it gave a lot of us the problem-solving skills; when something goes wrong in research, we know how to fix and ask the follow-up questions better than people who come from some other academic backgrounds.”

He then moved to Europe in order to follow his passion for football while becoming a lecturer at the prestigious Oxford University, where he has spent the last 17 years.

“Oxford's reputation precedes it and the opportunity to go there and do research was exciting. I assumed I'd show up and they'd work out I was some sort of idiot and kick me out straight away,” Ritchie said. 

Over the years, he had the opportunity to bond with the community, develop his love of sports and be part of international research teams working on various projects, all while living a pleasant family life.  

It was in 2020, when Covid-19 hit the world by surprise, that Ritchie’s career would take a turn he hadn’t expected as he had always been convinced his students would deliver academic achievements, not himself. 

“As an academic before the Covid-19 vaccine work, where I've had a bigger impact career-wise than I probably thought I ever would, I always thought about how my big impact would probably be through what my students go on and do.”

At the time when the first cases arose, Ritchie was part of the Jenner Institute, Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford as a rabies vaccine project manager, where he was trying to develop an accessible and affordable vaccine which could be delivered to anyone by developing the manufacturing process. 

“We keep a reasonably close eye on infectious disease around the world and when it hit in February 2020, half a dozen of us sat in a room and decided we were going to accelerate the programme to try and get this vaccine ready in case it was needed.”

It is during that meeting that Ritchie’s name was put forward by his colleagues to manage the program and ensure the development and delivery of the manufacturing process for the Covid-19 vaccine. 

“It accelerated so fast that a few weeks later there were about 400 of us involved.”

The project was then split into six teams, each contributing to some part of the vaccine development. Ritchie’s focus was towards developing the manufacturing process which will be needed to distribute the vaccine once finalised. 

“We were thinking about the manufacturing part from day one, and I think that's one of the reasons why our vaccine internationally has played such a big role.”

Drawing from years of expertise, Ritchie’s manufacturing processes ensured that the vaccine could scale up and manufacturers could make a thousand doses at a time anywhere in the world.

“One of the previous classes I taught was on preparing for a pandemic and how there was a lack of vaccine manufacturing in the UK as a case study of that. 

“I didn't realise that was going to come to the fore internationally quite as quickly as it did after I joined The Jenner.”

A couple of months after starting their work, AstraZeneca came on board and worked with the team and took the scaling of the vaccine to the next level, and transferred the knowledge to manufacturers worldwide, including Australia. 

According to Ritchie, a lot of the lives saved by the vaccine are due to the manufacturing process, which was an important element of the AZ vaccine and allowed it to be rolled out in many countries in a relatively short period of time. 

As of today, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been used in 185 countries, and more than 2 billion doses were distributed less than a year after its approval. In Australia 12.6 million of AZ doses had been received by October 2021.

As of November 2021 Astra-Zeneca reported his vaccine had saved more than one million lives worldwide, prevented 50 million COVID-19 cases and five million hospitalisations.

”I'm a big believer that research isn't really done by individuals but by a team. All of us are replaceable to some extent, but there are 20-40 of us who played pretty central roles in getting this thing to actually happen,” Ritchie said.

“To think that we saved millions of lives just in the first year, some people are walking around and wouldn't be here [without the vaccine], that's pretty humbling at the same time as being a very pleasant sort of thing.

“It is that which I fully expect to be the most important thing that I'll ever do in my career.

“This is something that matters to people I'll never meet and to people I will never interact with and in terms of science and having an impact in your career, I don't think you can ask for any more than that.”

When he joined The Jenner back in 2017, Ritchie had a 10-year plan to try and have an impact on the field, yet Covid changed everything. The researcher will now focus on trying to set up some systems to help translate potential medical discoveries into impacting people's lives.

“It is a classic value of death as we say, in that the gap between academic research and licenced medicine is actually really big."

Ritchie and his team are hopeful other academics and universities will be interested by the project and will be willing to work with them on an early development of vaccines, cancer treatment, medical devices, surgery and more. 

“If they'd like to come and work with us to help work out early on in the development what they can do to give themselves the best chance of it going all the way through to have medical impact."

In addition to new team projects, Ritchie will continue to publish peer reviewed papers on the AstraZeneca vaccine development process.

Yet, before going back to academia, he decided to take some time off down under to visit friends and family he hasn’t seen for years due to the pandemic. 

“Even if I wouldn’t live elsewhere than Oxford, I still call Australia home and it’s good to be back,” he said.

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