Operations technician apprentice Emilia Reyes is part of a high-profile University of Oxford team working on a COVID-19 vaccine.

Chemical sciences apprentice Paige Orwig works in a COVID-19 testing centre

Health and science apprentices are playing a vital role with the development of vaccines and testing for COVID-19.

Operations technician apprentice Emilia Reyes is part of a high-profile team working on a vaccine at the Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility, University of Oxford.

This has passed through the first stage of trials, which involved testing on more than 1,000 adult volunteers. The second phase involves expanding the age range to look at how the vaccine works for children, people aged 56 to 69 years-old, and those over 70.

Emilia said:

“Working in the production of a vaccine against COVID-19 infection has been an incredible experience. I’m 21 years old and started my apprenticeship when I was 19. It’s a two-year apprenticeship and I’m close to finishing in September.
“It feels great to be part of a team which has put lots of hours and dedication into ensuring the vaccine has been produced and manufactured for testing in record time, while maintaining high quality standards and ensuring patient safety at all times. I have worked on sterilising the vials before they were filled with the vaccine which was tested on volunteers.
“My main role has been with maintenance of our water purifying system, which supplies our steam generator used by an autoclave machine that sterilises the equipment.
“I have also assisted with the routine cleaning and environmental monitoring of our cleanrooms, where the manufacturing of the vaccine takes place, to keep it clear of microbial contamination.
“I consider it a privilege to see all the scientific progress and advances happening right in front of me and being able to learn from it.”

Paige Orwig, 32, a third-year degree apprentice in applied chemical sciences, works for research-based biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. She has been working in a testing centre – helping to process the many COVID-19 tests that have been coming in each day.

She said: “When the pandemic hit the UK, I wanted to do whatever I could to help in any way that I could. I am unbelievably grateful that I’m able to utilise and develop my scientific skills to help fight against this pandemic.
“The COVID-19 testing centre is a high-throughput laboratory and I have learned to work to a precise standard operating procedure with the required speed, accuracy and precision! I was worried before starting new shifts that I would struggle with the hours, but the camaraderie and enthusiasm my teammates have for the work and helping in any way that we can makes the shifts a breeze!
“My apprenticeship is a five-year programme and, upon completion, I will receive a bachelor’s degree in applied chemical sciences. As part of the apprenticeship, I work for four days a week for AstraZeneca. I work in a laboratory where I am able to gain experience with the latest techniques and experimental kit to help to gain the relevant industry experience needed for future employment. My fifth day is a study day in which I do distance learning with the University of Kent.”

Both Paige and Emelia hope their experiences can help inspire young people getting their exam results this month to consider apprenticeships as a fulfilling next step that will prepare them for successful careers.

There have been 50,000 starts on health and science apprenticeship standards in the last three years. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education – the government agency that runs apprenticeships - has supported employers with the development and launch of over 60 apprenticeships for this sector.

Dr Kate Barclay, board member for the Institute for Apprentices and Technical Education and Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, reflected on the work many of these apprentices are doing to help fight the pandemic. She said:

“We have many scientific apprentices at the forefront of this pandemic developing the novel vaccines, supporting the complex manufacturing processes, and strengthening the analytics to ensure safe and reliable vaccines are made available. We will not be able to manufacture at scale if we do not have the well-trained staff needed to operate within this highly regulated environment.
“Cutting-edge vaccines do not develop and manufacture themselves, and the skills we need across all roles are highly specialised. There has never been more of a focus on skills in medicines manufacturing than now, and the hard work of the Institute has been really important in the delivery of high-quality apprenticeships and flexible end-point-assessment approaches to make sure we can continue to develop applied, industry relevant STEM talent.”