What next for the COVID-19 taskforces?

Dr Ruth McKernan CBE former chair of the BioIndustry Association and former Chair of Innovate UK

It has been a source of pride during my tenure as BIA Chair to see first-hand the extraordinary efforts of the UK biotech and life sciences sector respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies, academia and researchers have worked day and night to find solutions.

Since the start of the pandemic, it has been clear that while vaccines would play a key part of our response – prevention is better than cure – we would also need an arsenal of options including antibody treatments and antivirals to fully combat and control the virus, for the whole population. I have been representing the BIA and its members with industry and government to understand, develop and ultimately deploy antiviral treatments. So far, the Government have procured two novel MHRA-approved, oral antivirals, Lagevrio (molnupiravir) and Paxlovid (PF-07321332 and ritonavir). Patients can access them in two ways – higher risk patients who are more likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19 through their GP or consultant and otherwise through a national study.

As we hopefully move from pandemic to endemic, we should expect to see improvements in Covid treatment innovated via drug combinations, longer-acting prophylactic antibodies and broader-spectrum vaccines, for example.

Even more important is to take stock, learn from Covid and invest in longer-term health security for the UK (and beyond of course).

We do not lack serious world-leading expertise in our companies, academic scientists and NHS practitioners. The Government, through InnovateUK has invested in translational and innovation centres such as the new Cell and Gene Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Braintree, and mRNA technology investment at CPI in Darlington and the Vaccines manufacturing and innovation Centre in Oxford. When  the Government invested early in the pandemic to support the UK’s future vaccine manufacturing capability we saw other Clinical Development and Manufacturing Organisations (CDMO’s) increasing investment in their UK operations, including the likes of Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies and Toughlight Genetics. Government investment in pandemic preparedness should crowd in private sector investment.

One lesson from this pandemic is that we cannot simply procure our way out of future pandemics. We must build as well as buy. As the Prime Minister told healthcare investors at this year’s JP Morgan conference: “We will aim to provide global solutions on the principle of made in the UK, shared with the world”. Investing in our antiviral and antibiotic biotech companies and onshoring scale up and manufacturing capability provides a long-term return to UK taxpayer as well as benefitting patients globally. Building our private sector assets alongside public sector investments will further strengthen the UK biotech and life sciences sector to create products that are suitable for the UK and for export.

We are still not out of the woods yet on COVID-19. At time of writing while the worst projections of Omicron have not been fully realised, the fact remains this virus will mutate or worse and we will experience other viruses requiring quick response from industry.

 What we need is a clear strategy pulling together the work of the various taskforces in vaccines, therapeutics, antivirals and testing, to keep the UK at the forefront of the response to this pandemic and those in the future.

This requires the type of leadership we saw from Dame Kate Bingham, able to work at pace and carry risk, uniting scientists and entrepreneurs at the heart of government and greater clarity on where responsibility for future preparedness sits within government. These strands of work need to be urgently pulled together for the benefit of the UK but also the wider world. It is a mission the BIA and its members will be proud to partner on.


 

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