January 27, 2022

Discovery Makers: Mustapha Bittaye

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

Discovery Makers: Mustapha Bittaye

Meet Discovery Maker Mustapha Bittaye, a postdoctoral researcher at the Jenner Institute who helped create the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Born in The Gambia, a scholarship took Mustapha to the UK to study microbial proteomics, and from then onwards he has made truly amazing contributions to global human health.

Conor and Dodi talk to Mustapha about his story, his truly brilliant mind, his hope for the future, including greater equitable access to vaccines across the world.


More information on ELISA method can be found here.

DODI: Today, in another edition of our mini-series Discovery Makers on the Discovery Matters podcast, we have a full-blown superstar to talk to!

CONOR: Oh, I feel fanboy moments coming on. Who will we be talking to today?

DODI: Oh, we're talking all things vaccines. And the way we're going to do that is to hear from Mustapha Bittaye, who recently helped develop the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19.

CONOR: So, this is proper science royalty. This is celebrity. This is, well, kind of very, very exciting. And I guess that's what matters on today's episode of Discovery Matters.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE : My name is Dr. Mustapha Bittaye, I work at the Jenner Institute here at the University of Oxford. I am involved in the development of vaccines against emerging and outbreak viral pathogens.

CONOR: So, before we get to Oxford and the vaccine, how did it all start for him?

DODI: To hear that, let's go way, way back and let's travel far from where we are Conor to The Gambia.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: When I was growing up, I didn't come from a very fortunate family in terms of wealth, I come from a very humble background. And for me, education was something that was seen as a way out of poverty. And it was also something that was seen as something very prestigious in society. I didn't see a lot of people in my family to motivate me to become what I am, and also to pursue my academic career in a way. I strive for perfection, or excellence in everything I do.

DODI: Eventually, Mustapha started his scientific career working at the Medical Research Council there, which is funded by the UK Government. This work gave him the opportunity to see in real life the impact that science can have on the lives of people around him.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: And for me, I also have the opportunity whilst there to witness the clinical trial of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, which went on to be introduced in our national immunization program, the childhood immunization program. And I've seen in real life the impact the introduction of that vaccine in the country's childhood immunization program has had in terms of reducing severe disease caused by pneumococcus, but also in terms of death caused by pneumococcus.

CONOR: So, out of all the potential scientific disciplines that he could have pursued, what was it that really drove him to working on vaccines?

DODI: Well, it's actually quite a sad story, and it relates to people around him not being vaccinated.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: I lost my elder brother to measles. And the only reason why measles is no longer a major health problem in low- and middle-income country is down to the widespread use of the measles vaccine in those parts of the world through the expanded program of the WHO. So, for me, it's down to a passionate encounter I have in life, and the impact I see in real life growing up, that vaccines have in terms of improving child mortality in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in my country in The Gambia.

DODI: And then, one day, Mustapha got good news, which brought him to London.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: Coming to London to study on a scholarship that was given to me by the University of Westminster is always the thing I reference as the landmark moment that changed my life. So, the only reason that was possible is because science transcends borders. So, the work I was doing was something I was doing with colleagues from across the world. Some of them were from the UK, some were from other parts of the world. So, it was a very diverse environment. With Science, you can go anywhere, you can work anywhere, but with science you can benefit not only your community, but every community across the world.

DODI: And after that Mustapha then went to Oxford.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: So, coming to Oxford, to work at the Jenner, developing vaccines for emerging and outbreak pathogens, what that opened my eyes to is the opportunity to know that you can work anywhere in the world in science and still be able to produce meaningful differences in people’s lives.

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DODI: It's easy to forget it but COVID-19 is not the first Coronavirus out there.

NEWS ANCHOR: It's called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, the MERS virus for short.

CONOR: That's right! And back in 2012, in June in Jeddah, Saudi. We had the first case of MERS, 'Middle East Respiratory Syndrome'. I remember that!

DODI: That was it big deal!

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: That particular Coronavirus belongs to the same family as the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus that's currently responsible for the global pandemic.

DODI: And Mustapha was one of the first scientists out there to work on that virus.


DODI:Mustapha says that the data he and his colleague got from that trial, basically set the scene in terms of what he and the team went on to do with the COVID-19 vaccine.

CONOR:So, the trials got a lot of focus on the COVID-19 side of things. So, how exactly do they work and what was Mustapha's role during these trials?

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: We have two primary immunological readouts that we use to measure the immunogenicity of the vaccine. I optimized and standardized, as well as validated, the ELISA method that is used for measuring the antibody response in people who are vaccinated. In addition to that, I also developed the data processing and management workflow, to enable data integrity and end-to-end data traceability, as well as putting the system in place for monitoring the performance of the RCA, as well as the quality control of the data.

CONOR: So, can we just really zoom in on the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine for a moment? Talk me through the discovery here. How did it happen?

DODI: Oh, it's a fantastic story of failing in order to succeed. So, when Mustapha started the trials, he actually wasn't expecting to fail at all.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: Most of the time in science, people fail more often than they succeed. But for us, our tasks and our objective were set on succeeding. Some of the challenges was with regards to the amount of time we were spending in the lab, which was something we hadn't done before. So, we were spending many long hours walking. And this is something we were doing week-in-week-out, so this was not something we were doing like for five days, but something we were doing for seven days a week. This was something we've been doing for many, many, many, many, many months, during the pandemic at a time when people were in lockdown, at a time when people were social distancing, and at a time when people were dying from the virus. So, we know we were in a race.

CONOR: I mean, I cannot imagine the intensity of the pressure that the team must have felt under, it must have been almost unbearable.

DODI: It was intense! And Mustapha says he could almost feel the heat of the spotlight on him, as he and the team were searching for an effective vaccine.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: I think this is the first time that, you know, scientists have been given this amount of coverage when it comes to the media, and the amounts of recognition for the work that they have been doing. And for us, the spotlight has been on us continuously. So, which also was an added pressure in the sense that people were closely, you know, keeping an eye on what we are doing. And they were expecting something great from the work we were doing. So that expectation alone was something else.

CONOR: So, how do you keep going during something like that? How do you not crumble under the pressure, under the expectation, of like 9 billion people that need what you're working on.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: I knew if it was successful, we'll have a wide global reach because of its affordability, but also, you know, the ability to deploy it to other parts of the world, where the infrastructure is not as great as this part of the world. So, I knew the vaccine I was involved in developing will have a greater impact in fighting this pandemic, particularly in other parts of the world that are less fortunate, including my own country in The Gambia, and that this one for me is what kept me going. And this is what gave me the opportunity to keep focused on the tasks and to know that the work I was doing, will eventually - if successful - have a greater impact in fighting the pandemic.

DODI: But you know, the hardest part of the process, besides all that pressure, was the pace of the thing. The speed!

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: The magnitude of the task was huge. We were working at a much faster pace. And the environment was so dynamic, you know, things were changing. Things could change in a split second, and the adaptability and flexibility that the team showed to deliver on whatever objective was set was amazing. And for me that teamwork and collaboration is something I haven't seen before in my entire career. It just goes to show that, you know, with teamwork and collaboration, as humans we can achieve anything we want.

DODI: So, there was Mustapha in Oxford, basically saving the world. But back home in The Gambia, his family didn't really get what he was doing.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: It took me many, many years to explain to my family, particularly my mom, the impact of the work I was doing. Such as how it can change lives because most of it was quite fundamental biology, whereby, you know, most of the time what you do doesn't get translated. Although it can inform policies that can influence certain decisions, when it comes to certain decision making and policies by certain government agencies, our work can be very useful. So, she always asked me, "When are you going to stop? When are you going to finish all this learning? You know, how long is it going to take you to, you know, do all of this and start to settle down?"

CONOR: So now, what does his mother say?

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: So, my mom was fortunate to be one of the people who was offered the AstraZeneca vaccine in The Gambia. And she has now come to the realization that the work I have been doing has this kind of benefit and impact it can have, and she is now able to understand and relate to what I do. And I think now she can understand that the whole journey was to make me a better scientist, but also to prepare me for greater things like this. And I'm glad now that you know, she's proud of me and understands what I do. And I think she's happy that I have had such an impact on people's lives at a time of need.

DODI: No matter where he is in the world, Mustapha still holds tight to his roots back in Africa.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: Yeah, that's true. I draw inspiration from where I come from. And I also draw inspiration from where I am now. So, for me, looking back, I always use that as a way of validating the fact that you can start where I started, and end up where I am now, or even surpass where I am. So, it's just a way of inspiring other people, but also inspiring, getting inspiration myself from my roots. Knowing that where I came from is good enough to set a foundation, and I've been glad and fortunate to be part of the team that developed this vaccine, and it goes on to be used worldwide. And as I speak, over 1 billion doses have been administered worldwide, including in my country back in the Gambia. This just goes to show that science is the greatest collective endeavor that humanity has known.

DODI: So, as you can imagine, there are some long-term effects thanks to the experimentation of Mustapha and his team, and in fact, other teams who were working so quickly under such great pressure to bring a vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic. Mustapha has a few comments on the way vaccines are developed as a result of everything that has happened during the pandemic.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: Yeah, the platform technologies that are used in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine have revolutionized the way we're going to be developing vaccines in the years to come.

CONOR: So, now you kind of get to that really aggravating question that journalists often ask when they can't think of what else to ask, "How does it feel?" But really now I, you know, really want to know!

DODI: That's not a question, that is the question.

CONOR: But how does it feel then, having done what he's done?

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: Yeah, I mean, to do what we have done feels really great. When we do it, what we have in the back of our mind is to benefit humanity. And to be able to do that, in our lifetime, for me really means a lot. I'm fortunate to be part of a team that share the same passion I have, which is to do whatever we can to bring added benefit to humanity, but also to make a difference to people's life. Not only people in our local communities, but people in rural communities across the globe, I hope that we don't have another pandemic. But I hope that if we have one that people will be in a position to say, "Okay, we are going to develop a vaccine within three months", rather than a year, because we've been able to do it in a year. And I hope that people will take a lot of inspiration from the work we do, to be able to go on and achieve better things.

CONOR: That's just remarkable. It's such an inspiration. And look, I need to add my personal thanks! That stuff went into my arm.

DODI: Yeah.

CONOR: As soon as I was eligible for it here in the UK.

DODI: I had the Pfizer. But I think that the Astra was just a pioneer. And absolutely, I think we are all fortunate to be in the company of such remarkable scientists.

CONOR: I think we have to acknowledge the fact that there's some irony in Mustapha coming from The Gambia, and countries like The Gambia and others in the global south, still suffering vaccine inequity and don't have access to the work that has been developed. And this is, you know, frankly, we can be honest an element of social injustice that we as a global scientific community and governments around the world have to do a better job on.

DODI: Conor let's talk about that on a future episode of Discovery Matters. What do you say?

CONOR: I think we should! The equitability of biomedical progress, how does that sound as an episode?

DODI: And if you want to hear that, let us know and share some suggestions for someone we should interview.

CONOR: Superb rate us on the rating thing and we'll see you when we come back with another episode of Discovery Matters.

DODI: Thanks for listening. The executive producer of Discovery Matters is Andrea Kilin. It was produced with the help of Bethany Grace Armitt-Brewster. Editing, mixing, and music by Tom Henley and Banda Produktions. My name is Dodi Axelson...

CONOR: …and I'm Conor McKechnie.

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