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The UK is better prepared for the next pandemic, according to the top scientists at a new state of the art vaccines centre, although they acknowledged resource constraints and uncertainty over what form the next deadly disease might take would still make the rapid development of a jab challenging.
The warning came ahead of the formal opening this week of the new laboratories, known as the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre, based at Porton Down in Wiltshire, which was established last year.
Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency which runs the new centre, said much of its work would support the “100 Days Mission”. This was first outlined in 2021 under Britain’s G7 presidency, aimed at developing a vaccine against a potential killer pathogen within little more than three months of identifying it.
Speaking alongside Harries late last week, professor Isabel Oliver, the UKHSA’s chief scientific officer, said the goal of the 280 scientists at the centre was to “detect threats at source and control them before they spread”.
Covid-19 vaccines were developed at an unprecedented speed to counter the spread of coronavirus. But it was still close to a year after scientists realised the scale of the threat before the first jabs went into arms, which saved an estimated 14mn lives worldwide in the first 12 months, according to research published in the Lancet, and ultimately ended the need for damaging lockdowns.
“If those vaccines had been available just a bit earlier . . . or deployed more quickly we could have saved many more lives . . . and we could have obviously returned to greater normality much more quickly,” Oliver said.
Bassam Hallis, left, Isabel Oliver and Jenny Harries at Porton Down last week © Anna Gordon/FT
She insisted the UK was “absolutely” in better shape to deal with the next pandemic but warned this progress should not be taken for granted. “These capabilities are expensive. It’s not just the resource issue, but actually [sustaining] the skills, the expertise, all that requires constant effort.”
The new laboratories stand amid a collection of nondescript buildings on a windswept site outside the city of Salisbury. About 200m away lies Britain’s top-secret defence research facility, with which the name Porton Down has become synonymous.
The latter hit the headlines five years ago when scientists there identified the poison, which was used to try to kill the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, as a nerve agent developed for use on the battlefield by Soviet scientists from the 1970s onwards.
The government has invested £65mn to build, equip and staff the two new vaccine laboratories, which are completely separate from the military facility. The UKHSA said it was seeking to build on Porton Down’s “heritage and reputation for working safely with a range of diseases”.
Its deputy director, Bassam Hallis, said the centre was “unique” in the world for co-locating all the functions needed to support the development of vaccines and therapeutics, from isolating the pathogen to late-stage clinical studies, on a single site.
Once inside the buildings — in which so-called “containment labs”, where live viruses are handled, are protected by airtight doors — the scale of the research being undertaken is immediately evident.
A Covid virus lab at the new centre © Anna Gordon/FT
Handling live viruses in a containment lab © Anna Gordon/FT
In a “high throughput” serology lab, thousands of blood samples a week are still being processed to monitor the spread of Covid-19, even though the pace has slackened somewhat from the 4,000 a day it handled at the height of the pandemic.
In other labs nearby a similar process is under way for a range of diseases, including tick-borne encephalitis, swine and bird flu.
In a separate “cell culture” lab, one scientist was examining blood samples from people vaccinated against Covid-19. These had been mixed with a live virus — a new variant of the disease — to see if existing antibodies were able to neutralise it.
Assays, or tests, for many conditions, have been developed on-site, including most recently for the virus that causes monkeypox.
The centre is collaborating with the Centre for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation based in Norway and harnesses expertise from academia and industry.
Harries acknowledges the 100-day goal will be easier to achieve for some pathogens than others. But she sees great promise in the relatively new mRNA vaccine technology, which produced some of the most successful Covid jabs.
“[They] give us a much more realistic opportunity, I think, of being able to say ‘actually we’ve got the main structure ready to go. We’re going to pop in the new pathogen’,” she added. It would not be as simple as that, she conceded, “but it does start to bring it into reality”.
But a significant milestone could be on the horizon with early trials under way on an inoculation to protect against Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, a virus that is spread by the bite of an infected tick and is fatal in about 30 per cent of cases.
If the trials are successful it would be the first vaccine produced by the centre as well as the first of its kind in the world.