The Greek Scientist from Chios Behind AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 Vaccine

Credit: AstraZeneca

Greek scientist Menelas (Mene) Pangalos is the head of research and development at pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca which, together with Oxford university, developed a vaccine for Covid-19 with efficacy rates of up to 90%.

The coronavirus vaccine has comfortably exceeded regulatory requirements for effectiveness in phase 3 trials, giving another boost to hopes that the pandemic can be defeated.

The successful results follow the positive trials of rival treatments this month from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which have lifted global stock markets and signaled a possible end to lockdowns that have wreaked havoc on the world economy.

The vaccine, dubbed AZD1222, was co-invented by the University of Oxford and its spin-out company, Vaccitech. According to AstraZeneca, it uses a replication-deficient chimpanzee viral vector based on a weakened version of a common cold virus which causes infections in chimpanzees and contains the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike protein.

After vaccination, the surface spike protein is produced, priming the immune system to attack the SARS-CoV-2 virus if it later infects the body. Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it is not based on RNA technology and it can therefore be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures.

Pangalos, with roots from the island of Chios, is the Executive Vice-President, BioPharmaceuticals R&D at AstraZeneca.

Passion for science

When he was growing up, his mother dreamed of making him a doctor. Instead, he was enchanted by the world of science, he said in a recent interview to thedoctor.com.

“I have always had a passion for science and one of the things that fascinated me was the way the human brain works.”

Pangalos stresses the importance of team-work. “As Steve Jobs said, ‘great things are never done by one person, they are done by groups of people.’ I have been lucky enough to work with some smart people and teams.”

“Being able to help talented scientists realize their aspirations of bringing medicines to the clinic is one of the most satisfying aspects of my career – there is nothing more rewarding than seeing one of your medicines make a difference to patients’ lives. This is what motivates me to keep doing what I do,” the Greek scientist said.

Summers in Chios

Born in London to Greek parents, Pangalos feels like a citizen of the world, but states that his Greek roots are an important part of his identity. He says that the summers he spent as a child in Chios, the place of origin of both his parents, were an important constant in his life.

“My father was a sailor. My mother was a housewife. There were no scientists in my family. If I followed my family tradition, I would become a ship engineer,” he says.

He claims, in fact, that he was not a very good student, but science was always something that interested him. A good teacher at the school was the one who introduced him to the secrets of biology and although no one in his family had attended university, his parents were very supportive when he decided to continue his studies.

Future of R&D in Greece

He also expressed his optimism about the future in the field of research and clinical research in Greece.

“In the last few years, we have seen some positive changes within the research community in Greece, and I am really heartened by this. More young people are returning to Greece after studying or working abroad,” Pangalos said.

“Greece has shown tenacity and continued to produce excellent people-Greek scientists contribute to the top 1% most cited papers in the world. This is a testament to the talent that the country has, and a sure sign that it needs to be nurtured,” he adds.

Not afraid to take risks

After graduating from Imperial College London with a PhD in Neuropharmacology from University College London, he trained at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and worked for the global pharmaceutical industry, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Janssen Belaxecm, Smith.

From 2003 to 2008 he oversaw the development of 20 experimental drugs in Wyeth, USA, and then spent two years at Pfizer before switching to AstraZeneca.

At AstraZeneca, Pangalos transformed the company’s culture, boosting the productivity of the research and development sector to bring more drugs to market.

How does he explain the great successes of his career? “I was lucky and I took the opportunity when it came to me. I was not afraid to take risks, leave home and go to different countries and explore different opportunities,” he said in the interview.