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Geoffrey Schild obituary

The microbiologist Geoffrey Schild, who has died aged 82, did much to help halt the spread of influenza, polio and Aids. It was he who proposed the concept of a universal flu vaccine, a goal still sought today.

In 1969, two years after joining the World Health Organisation’s influenza centre, based at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, north London, Geoffrey was appointed its director. He wanted to see how the need for a new influenza vaccine each year could be avoided.

The need to renew vaccines arose because the influenza virus contains outside spike proteins that are constantly evolving. Geoffrey concentrated on the virus proteins in the internal core of the virus. He found that these internal proteins were not only shared by all human influenza viruses, but by influenza viruses found in pigs and birds. This pointed to the possibility of a universal influenza vaccine that could be active against new, emerging viruses, including those from animal sources, thus eliminating the need for annual change.

Better still, influenza vaccine could be stockpiled in case of an epidemic. It happens that the first widespread human testing of a universal vaccine has just started, in a trial aiming to involve 500 people aged 65 and over in Berkshire and Oxfordshire this winter.

In 1975 Geoffrey became head of the viral products division at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC) in Hampstead, north London. There he focused his efforts, alongside the virologist John Wood, on standardising conventional influenza vaccines to ensure that, when manufactured, they would always contain the same quantity of influenza protein. The WHO quickly identified this as a breakthrough, and by 1978 Geoffrey’s method of standardising vaccines was made obligatory for all new influenza vaccines around the world.

On being appointed the director of NIBSC in 1985, Geoffrey set up a polio research group. At the time, children were being given live polio vaccine. Geoffrey’s team followed what happened when children were given the polio virus to swallow. He realised that live polio virus could occasionally mutate and become virulent again. Though it was rare, it did happen. Thanks to the team’s work, live polio vaccine is no longer in use.

In this period, too, when the Aids crisis first broke, Geoffrey was given the task of directing the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Aids programme in Britain, bringing together medics and scientists from the UK, the US and the rest of the EU to develop vaccines for the prevention of Aids, and drugs for the treatment of HIV infection. Geoffrey’s aim was to get work on Aids moving quickly and efficiently. He divided teams into two arms: the strategic programme, which worked on the nature of Aids and its treatment, as well as monitoring the spread of HIV, and the second arm, which focused on developing drugs and vaccines.

The programme had its detractors: the MRC was criticised for repeating vaccine experiments in monkeys that had already been done in the US, for example. But it also had successes.

The Anglo-French Concorde trial, sponsored by the MRC and a French research agency, was the biggest clinical trial of the drug AZT ever conducted. It showed that the drug could not delay the onset of Aids in HIV-positive people or increase their life expectancy. The results were published in the Lancet and made headlines worldwide. Nonetheless, this negative result stimulated researchers elsewhere to discover three new classes of anti-Aids drugs that have since transformed the clinical management of people with Aids.

The job of directing multinational researchers could be tumultuous. Geoffrey’s technique when faced with a room full of squabbling scientists was to wink, surreptitiously. He had such an open face and such a smiley one; it always worked.

Born in Sheffield, Geoffrey was one of four children of Christopher Schild, a travelling salesman, and his wife, Georgina (nee Kirby). He went to High Storrs grammar school in Sheffield and then Reading University, where he completed a degree in microbiology in 1958.

After graduating, Geoffrey worked for the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson for two years, then decided to do a PhD, at Sheffield University, focusing on the common cold virus.

We met at Lodge Moor hospital, where I was also studying for a PhD, and our supervisor, Sir Charles Stuart-Harris, had set up a research group in virology as part of the university’s medical school. We focused on growing viruses. Sometimes it would all go wrong and Geoffrey would say: “Just chuck it out and start again.” His attitude to everything was “never give up”.

It was also at Lodge Moor that Geoffrey met Tora Madland, a Norwegian pharmacist and British Council scholar. Geoffrey and Tora were married in 1961.His research continued in Sheffield for another six years.

In 1993 Geoffrey was appointed CBE, and nine years later he retired from the NIBSC. Part of his legacy there is the library of carefully grown viruses that he helped set up so that scientists around the world could access the high-quality specimens needed for their research.

He was also author of at least 300 scientific papers. One of the most important, co-authored with the virologist John Skehel, introduced a new system for classifying the thousands of influenza strains isolated in animals and humans. The classification system is still in use by WHO laboratories today.

Geoffrey is survived by Tora, their three children, Oystein, Ingrid and Peter, and two grandchildren.

Geoffrey Christopher Schild, microbiologist, born 28 November 1935; died 3 August 2017