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UK lacks capacity to make own coronavirus vaccine, experts say

Historic UK under-investment in this area of R&D might mean jabs are in short supply

Virology experts have warned that should a vaccine against the global coronavirus outbreak be developed, historic under-investment in this area of R&D in the UK might mean jabs are in short supply when they eventually materialise.

“Some countries still have state serum institutes whose mission is to ‘protect against infectious disease’ and making vaccines is one of their roles,” Ian Jones, professor of virology at the University of Reading, told Research Professional News.

“But in the UK these have long gone and although there have been recent initiatives to correct the obvious deficit they are not yet up and running, nor is their remit really manufacture—more trial batches of experimental vaccines.”

As of 10 March, some 382 people in the UK had tested positive for the virus—including health minister Nadine Dorries—and eight had died. More than 26,000 people had been tested.

“In a truly worldwide crisis, the sovereign states who host [vaccine manufacturing] sites would understandably want their own needs met before they would agree to allow export elsewhere,” Jones said.

“Not to have any such manufacturing options within its own borders puts a country at the back of the queue when the vaccine is requested, despite the technology to make it being very transferable.”

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations has asked for $2 billion (£1.5bn) to develop and make vaccines against the coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, making hundreds of millions of doses available through a globally fair allocation system within 12-18 months.

The requirements for a vaccine for most coronaviruses are well known, said Jones, so the issue is not vaccine discovery.

“In fact, [a vaccine] is already available,” he said, noting that a recombinant SARS-CoV-2 protein was being advertised on commercial websites within four weeks of the virus’s genetic sequence being released.

“In essence this is vaccine material although it is not manufactured as such, it is sold for research use only, but its availability so quickly shows that to produce a vaccine using material of this type is also not an issue.”

The hold-up is the need to conduct lengthy trials to test efficacy and safety.

“What is galling about the current situation is that years of research, mostly publicly funded, has told us what to do and provided the tools and technologies to do it,” Jones said. “Yet some combination of the established and the sacrosanct prevents it being shaken by the throat and done.”

One hope in the medium term is the UK’s first dedicated Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, in Harwell, near Oxford, which is expected to be up and running by 2022. But even this centre will not be able to handle large epidemics without millions in further funding, experts have said. The centre has received £66m through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Medicines Manufacturing challenge.

Matthew Duchars, chief executive of the VMIC, told Research Professional News that the centre could support vaccine production for first responders and to help contain local outbreaks with up to a million doses.

“The facility has not been designed to respond to a more widespread outbreak such as a pandemic situation, where many more doses, i.e. millions, would be required,” he said. “In order for VMIC to be able to respond to a potential pandemic situation, such as the current coronavirus outbreak, the facility would need to be scaled up.”

“This would require larger scale equipment, more staff and the building to be expanded,” Duchars said, estimating that a further £40m would be required for the upgrade “to provide surety for domestic supply”.

“Currently we are having to look abroad to find sufficient capacity and in situations where entire countries are being locked down (e.g. Italy), that is proving difficult! Additionally, it is no good having the facility if it is not kept operational. Hence the need to maintain it in a qualified state by keeping it ‘warm lit’.”

Duchars’s team is now considering asking for more money for such an upgrade.

Robin Shattock, an infection researcher at Imperial College London, told The Times on 7 March that a further £2-4m a year would be needed to keep the VMIC ready to ramp up production on demand.

The government seems open to funding vaccine research and manufacture, whatever it costs, given the Chancellor’s comments on 11 March when presenting the budget.

Rishi Sunak promised that “whatever extra resources our NHS needs to cope with coronavirus—it will get…whether its research for a vaccine, recruiting thousands of returning staff…whether its millions of pounds or billions of pounds…whatever it needs, whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS”.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight