Q&A with Dr. Machteld Wyss-van den Berg

With the global death toll of COVID-19 approaching the 400,000 mark, the race to have a coronavirus vaccine sooner rather than later has been intensifying with each passing day. And a growing field of political leaders and scientists worldwide have indicated it might be acceptable to cut corners never done before to expedite rolling out a vaccine to mass market. But, is it? One person that the news media have reached out to for opinion on the raging public debate was Dr. Machteld Wyss-Van Den Berg, a public health researcher focusing on vaccine ethics with the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel, Switzerland. She was originally from Fourth Creek.

We reached out to her for a Q&A that delves not only into her work in global vaccine development but also her Fourth Creek connection.

Which family clan in Fourth Creek do you belong to?
I did grow up in Fourth Creek. But my parents actually moved there in the late 1990s from the Netherlands to run a beekeeping operation. The community was really good to us growing up, and I have so many wonderful memories with kids from other big families in Fourth Creek.

When was the last time you were in Fourth Creek and how often do you come for a visit?
It has been a while, unfortunately. It’s not the easiest place to get to from Switzerland, and my parents have since moved to BC. But I went back in 2013. I wanted to show my Swiss husband where I grew up and introduce him to the many important people from my childhood. He was stunned by the nature, and we were even lucky enough to see some Northern Lights late in August. Definitely a memorable visit for both of us. And, of course, a childhood friend hosted us in her home.

What were some of your best memories of Fourth Creek?
Definitely hockey. I loved spending my days after school at the rec-plex and weekends playing. I played with boys for my first years, and they were always great teammates. Then as the body checking came and the size difference was too much, I switched to a female league. I can still smell the French fries from the kitchen and feel the thrill of stepping on the ice with my teammates before a game. Of course, besides hockey there are endless memories with my classmates who I had by my side from Grade 2 until graduation. They become like siblings, and you don’t have many places where you have the same classmates throughout your entire elementary and high school education.

How did you get from Fourth Creek to Switzerland?
I actually studied in the University of Alberta and completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Immunology directly after graduating high school from Savanna. Then I had some figuring out to do regarding my future. I was torn between medical school and a career in public health. So, I went to stay in Switzerland and ended up working and traveling in Europe that year. Then I was faced with an offer from medical school and a public health program – and I had to decide. The public health program was split between Singapore and Switzerland, and it just felt like the right fit. And here I am eight years later.

Tell us how you ended up working in the area of vaccine research.
Well, the master’s program I enrolled in took me to Singapore. I focused on infectious disease, and my research project looked at Hepatitis B immune responses. When I finished my master’s studies I moved to Geneva and worked for Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance. This is an organization that strives to improve access to vaccination globally. So, I was working closely with UNICEF, the WHO and the World Bank. This gave me some key insights into vaccine development and how important it is that we have strong immunization programs. During my time in Geneva we were focused on a malaria vaccine that’s currently being rolled out in Africa. There were a number of ethical questions associated with this vaccine – specifically, that it wasn’t working so well. It was deemed safe but had about a 36% efficacy, which is rather low compared to routine childhood vaccinations that we are used to. So I wanted to explore how this vaccine was being developed and what the implications were for children in sub-Sahara Africa who were the recipients. I moved to East Africa and spent months there speaking to parents of children who were receiving the vaccine and also the researchers who were making it. Based on this work I completed my PhD and have focused on vaccine development in diverse contexts and ethics ever since.

Tell us what your typical day is like.
Currently, I’m actually in my office at home quite a lot due to the semi-lockdown restrictions in Switzerland. I usually start work early in the morning and have a number of calls with my European partners to discuss vaccine strategies and challenges that are unique to different settings. We are currently working quite closely together across national borders to explore different options and responses. As a result of COVID-19, there is the possibility of routine vaccinations being disrupted in different settings because people might not have access or feel safe going to a clinic to get the vaccine. We are doing our best to avoid this as childhood vaccinations are key to our population’s health. I also spend a bit of time talking to journalists about vaccine development and writing articles for publication on the topic of vaccination.

Tell us some of the successes in vaccine research that you were a part of.
The rollout of the first malaria vaccine is definitely the highlight of my career, so far. It is taking place in Africa right now and will save the lives of thousands of children. This vaccine was funded by many organizations. One of the key players has been the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Having the chance to be part of a team with so many different people from all over the world has been incredible. Furthermore, working so closely with local populations in Africa to integrate the vaccine into health and cultural systems has taught me a lot, and I’m very grateful to the openness of the people I’ve met along the way.

With COVID-19 ravaging lives, and research companies on the thick to develop a vaccine, how soon do you think a vaccine would arrive in the mass market?
This is a very difficult question, and it will require many things to align at the same time. I am hoping that in the next 15-18 months we can have one available, but this will require it to pass very rigorous safety and efficacy testing. Meaning, we need to know that it will be safe to give to healthy people and that it will actually provide protection against the disease.

What do you like to do in your downtime?
I really love growing my own vegetables (something I learned from my parents and is a common practice in Fourth Creek) and trail running. I also spend a lot of time in the Swiss Alps. The trails and views are stunning. Aside from that, I enjoy a good Netflix show and sharing a drink with friends.

Where do you see your life going in the next five years or so?
My motto has always been to stay open to opportunities and keep a flexible plan. And if such an opportunity scares me, I typically go for it because that’s a sign that I will grow and learn from the experience. This has always served me well, and I will keep moving forward in this way. As it looks now, I will be continuing to work on vaccine confidence in Switzerland together with the Swiss government. I deeply believe in trying to understand different perspectives on vaccination and engage in discussions with people who may hold different views than myself.