Meet Dr Carina Tyrrell, the former Miss England who just might save the world

Dr Tyrrell once competed in Miss World. Today, she's on the Oxford University vaccine team, leading the fight against Covid

Carina Tyrrell: “Vaccines, even at the best of times, are complex”
Carina Tyrrell: “Vaccines, even at the best of times, are complex” Credit: David Rose

Cavorting on a boat in a skimpy white bikini, showing off her long legs in a flowing black gown, posing with a glittering tiara on her head… Google Carina Tyrrell’s name and you’ll find thousands of glamorous photographs of the former Miss England.

What you won’t find so easily is that, six years after being crowned in her first ever pageant – which paved her way to the Miss World finals, where she came fourth – Dr Carina Tyrrell MA MB BChir MPH is one of the brightest young minds in the country. With a first-class medical degree from Cambridge University, front-line hospital experience as a junior doctor, cutting-edge research with the World Health Organisation and a Master’s degree in public health, she is now at the forefront of the most vital public health crisis of all – the hunt for a vaccine against Covid-19.

As part of a team at Oxford University, Tyrrell has been spearheading coronavirus research, co-ordinating work by different organisations to ensure a vaccine will be suitable for everyone, eliminating duplication between trials and channelling funding into potentially life-saving studies.

“Vaccines, even at the best of times, are complex,” she explains. “We’ve got multiple targets and we’re trying a number of different approaches – we don’t yet know what is going to work.”

At just 30, she is impressive and more than a little intimidating – at least on paper. In person, she’s warm, eloquent and so humble she seems almost embarrassed answering questions on her remarkable achievements.

“I suppose I got the bug for wanting to make a difference as a child,” she tells me. “I was really interested in developing countries, in tackling issues like malaria and other horrible diseases – that’s what made me want to go into medicine. I’ve always had this passion to help on a global scale.”

It might sound like clichéd beauty queen patter, but Tyrrell, with her soft, clipped vowels and swishy mane of brown hair, is well on her way to achieving her childhood goals. Born in Geneva to British parents – her father, Mark, is a retired physicist who helped build the Large Hadron Collider; her mother, Sue, used to work at the World Health Organisation – she describes her childhood as idyllic. “I love the outdoors; nature walks in the mountains in summer and skiing in the winter. It was a lovely place to grow up.”

Dr Carina Tyrrell pictured at her alma mater, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge Credit: David Rose

With family back in England, and her two half-sisters at university here, it was a natural step to apply to Cambridge – and, with stellar grades from school, no surprise to anyone when she got in.

Although it was what she’d always wanted, Tyrrell describes her first three years of medicine as “a slog”. “I used to struggle with the heavy workload,” she admits. “I had so many hobbies at school and when I came to Cambridge, those all fell away.”

It was quite a change for a girl whose list of extra-curricular activities included tap dancing, singing, acting, trampolining and dress-designing – not to mention that she’s bilingual, a published poet and has paintings and drawings on display in a Swiss castle. But in 2014 she found an outlet for her creative side, at the end of her fifth year, when she came across an advert for a fashion show at a nearby shopping centre.

“I was driving when I heard an announcement on the radio,” she explains. “They said they were scouting for entrants. I ended up winning my age category. It really took me by surprise. It brought back all the enjoyment I’d had at school.” Intrigued, Tyrrell then looked up the Miss England competition online.

“I was excited to see it wasn’t just a fashion parade; there was a charity round, a sports round and a round where you could make dresses,” she says. “It was ticking off all the things I was interested in.”

She entered, won – and, in December 2014, competed in Miss World, where she won four out of 10 rounds, making her the most successful Miss England candidate ever. The following day, Tyrrell found herself on the front pages of six national newspapers. Her phone number got out and she was besieged by calls. Commentators took issue with a Cambridge-educated doctor winning a beauty pageant, and Germaine Greer weighed in to the furore, dismissing Tyrrell’s claims of being a feminist and saying her looks fitted a “Barbie doll mould”.

Carina Tyrrell during the finals of Miss England 2015 Credit: Ben A Pruchnie/Getty Images Europe

It’s clear the comments hit a nerve, though Tyrrell is as polite and measured as ever. “Why can’t someone be a geek and an academic and a doctor, but also be interested in fashion and beauty and want to be in that world?” she asks. “For me, feminism is about being able to make the choices in life that you want, not having anything to restrain you. Some people want to use their looks to make a living – whether that’s modelling or something in the beauty industry – and some people want to use their intelligence.”

Today, when she’s not researching a vaccine, she is leading a study into a blood-taking device that will allow people to take a Covid antibody test at home, as well as an app that tracks heart rate, breathing and temperature with the aim of detecting the virus before symptoms develop.

“It’s all quite exciting,” she says. “The idea is that we’ll be able to identify which people are going to get sick before they know it themselves. At the moment, we have to wait for symptoms to show, by which stage they’re likely to have infected other people.”

Despite an increase in social restrictions across the UK, Tyrrell is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of a vaccine. “It’s likely that we will get one, but one that confers immunity on 100 per cent of the population? That’s very rare. It might end up reducing symptoms, so that when you get it, it’s not as bad, rather than preventing you from getting it at all.”

Following Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s remark in the House of Commons that a vaccine could be ready by Christmas, Tyrrell admits that is theoretically possible – “but more likely that vaccines will be available next year. At the rate we’re going, we might need a little more time. For now, social distancing is the best thing we’ve got.”

It’s been a busy six months, to say the least – and Tyrrell , who lives in central Cambridge with her boyfriend (she is, perhaps understandably, very private about her love life), is desperately missing her family. “I worry about them. They’re not getting any younger. Unfortunately, I lost my uncle during the pandemic, and we held an online funeral for him as we couldn’t be there in person.

“It’s been tough because of the workload and tough on a personal level, but I firmly believe that we will all come through this and we’ll be stronger for it.”

Pageant-speak, it seems, is still very much part of her vocabulary. And Tyrrell still finds the time to do her bit for Miss World. She’s been on the judging panel several times (most recently for the virtual Miss England competition in July) and continues to raise money for several associated charities.

So what’s next for this all-achieving beauty queen on a mission to save the world? “There are so many challenges to tackle,” she says. “At the moment, it’s Covid-19, but I’m also interested in changing behaviours, things like obesity and physical activity levels, which can prevent cancer, stroke and heart disease. Whatever I do, I’d like to do it on a global scale, helping as many people as I can.”

The only thing she doesn’t mention is world peace. But it wouldn’t come as a great surprise.