Taya-born Tony Villafana, about her love of science, her work on developing the COVID-19 vaccine at AstraZeneca and maintaining a landing in the middle of a pandemic – as Marvin Espinoza was told
I grew up in Trinidad and it was a wonderful experience growing up on a Caribbean island in the 1970s and 80s. My love for science began with my schooling, especially when I went to high school in the monastery of St Joseph’s, Port of Spain. I was really encouraged to follow my passion, science. I did this through high school and I was supported from an early age in developing all my interests in the scientific field, both at home and at school.
As a student, I became more interested in the field of immunology. The area was booming at the time, especially with the HIV pandemic, which helped push the boundaries of science and what we understood about the immune system. As a student, I had the opportunity to study and work in a laboratory where we learned about HIV and other retroviruses and where we were at an early stage in the development of DNA vaccine technology.
When it came time to go to graduate school, I wanted to focus on immunology as my core area of expertise and training. During my schooling and career, I focused on how the immune system works, in health conditions and diseases, and especially in the areas of rheumatology and infectious diseases.
Around 2001, I moved to sub-Saharan Africa to work on developing an HIV vaccine. I worked on establishing some of the first Phase 1 vaccine studies in the region. I was in Botswana and I did that for about five years. Towards the end of my stay there, I joined a group that was developing a malaria vaccine in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m really excited about where that vaccine is today. In October 2021, the World Health Organization approved a vaccine for “widespread use” in children, making it the first candidate for the malaria vaccine to receive this recommendation.
The first days of the COVID-19 pandemic were exhausting and exciting. At AstraZeneca, we were committed to helping and we were committed to making a difference in the pandemic. And so I had the opportunity to lead the research and development efforts of our vaccine in collaboration with Oxford University.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life and I’ve never worked with a group of people who were so passionate, dedicated and resilient to do this. We worked 24/7. I mean, it was fifteen to twenty hours. Some days I would sleep for a few hours, get up and start working again. So it was a really intense period because we started all the studies around the world for the vaccine program in collaboration with the team from Oxford.
I remember we decided very early on that we wanted to develop a vaccine for the world, and we wanted to do that not for profit during the pandemic. This was our commitment to Oxford. We worked so closely together between our teams at Oxford and AstraZeneca. Our teams are all over the world, and adjusting to virtual meetings and constant socializing has also been a big change in our usual ways of working. While we planned and conducted clinical studies, my colleagues in our operations and product groups simultaneously increased production worldwide to ensure that we could deliver in all regions around the world. It was really intense and very exciting. We felt like we were racing against time.
When the vaccine was finally developed, the feeling was irresistible, just irresistible pride that we did this, that we would help so many people and that I knew my family would get it. I knew that people at T&T and my family in Africa – my husband is from Senegal – would have access to this vaccine and that we could help so many people around the world. My first meeting in 2021 was at four in the morning in preparation for the introduction of the vaccine.
It is still quite busy, because the COVID-19 pandemic continues and we must continue to receive vaccines in people’s arms. Vaccines are the most important public health interventions that have taken place in the last two centuries. I think it’s really important to understand and find out about how vaccines work and about the potential to really protect people from the most difficult outcomes associated with the disease.
Scientists and public health leaders need to do a better job of educating people about the importance of vaccines. Imagine what the world would be like if we did not have smallpox vaccines, polio, smallpox, mumps, rubella and many of the vaccines we routinely give to children today.
I believe that vaccination against COVID-19 is really essential to stop the pandemic and that vaccines make a difference. Most importantly, vaccines prevent the worst outcomes of COVID-19 and the most serious diseases. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to get vaccinated so that we can all return to our daily lives.
When I’m not working, I spend time with my family. I love to travel. I like to cook. I spend time with my daughter, husband and mom. I enjoy great food, go to dance performances, listen to live music, and look forward to returning home and enjoying the sun and sea in the Caribbean. I haven’t been able to do much in the last two years.
Before the pandemic, I was at home at least once a year. My family is incredibly supportive and very proud, and everyone has been vaccinated. I’m happy. They always encouraged me to deal with my passion. They tell me how things are going in Trinidad and what people think. They keep me on the ground.