A central priority of the UK Government in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic is fast-tracking the development of potential treatments and vaccines for this deadly disease.

This policy is being carried out by expert-led taskforces, which oversee the development landscape and support promising innovations. In April, when the UK was experiencing an extreme peak in Covid-19 cases, the government established both a Therapeutics Taskforce and a Vaccines Taskforce.

The Therapeutics Taskforce centres around an Accelerating COVID-19 Research & Development (ACCORD) platform that will advance treatments that show promise in early clinical trial into larger-scale studies, such as the RECOVERY trial.

The Vaccines Taskforce is similar, but is instead focused on accelerating research and development of Covid-19 vaccines. It also aims to scale up manufacturing, so that once a vaccine is approved, it can be produced quickly.

So far, the taskforce has signed access deals with four different Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer teams; each group is developing a vaccine based on a different technology. The deals are with AstraZeneca (AZ) and the University of Oxford, Pfizer and BioNTech, Valneva and Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

Life science investor and chair of the Vaccines Taskforce, Kate Bingham, sheds light on the UK Government’s strategy to provide Covid-19 vaccines to UK patients, and those in need globally, as quickly as possible.

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Allie Nawrat: How would you summarise the strategy of the Vaccines Taskforce? 

Kate Bingham: We have three goals; one of which is to secure access to vaccines to protect the UK population. The second is to ensure that successful vaccines are distributed internationally to all those that need it. And the third is to [ensure] we are better prepared for the any future pandemic. That is the strategy, and it’s working pretty well so far.

AN: Why will supporting multiple candidates and different modalities speed up access to Covid-19 vaccines?  

 KB: The multiple candidates and portfolios approach is very deliberate. We don’t have a vaccine against any coronavirus; we don’t have a template to follow. We don’t know which, if any, of the vaccine formats is likely to actually elicit a protective response against the virus.

So, we’ve… [signed deals with four] promising approaches in each of the different vaccine formats. We’ve got two of the more clinically advanced groups of vaccines, but [also] the classes of vaccines about which we know the least: the adenovirus vaccine which has come out of Oxford and AZ [and] the mRNA vaccines, which is BioNTech and Pfizer.

Then we’ve counterbalanced that with two types of vaccine formats we have much more experience with: the adjuvanted protein, which is from GSK and Sanofi, and then the whole inactivated virus vaccine, which is Valneva’s. So, we think we think we’ve covered the different options.

Another aspect of our strategy is neutralising antibodies [for which] we signed a deal with AZ. These are for people who cannot receive vaccines because they are immunosuppressed or on cancer treatment [for instance]. It provides short term protective cover for around six months, [meaning] these will have to be repeat treatments and are suitable for people who have no alternative. We need to make sure everybody is included and anybody who needs to be protected is protected.

AN: Why is it so important to focus on the work of both from big and smaller players in the pharma industry?  

KB: Our starting point is to look at every single vaccine in preclinical development; we have absolutely not just focused on the big players. In fact, we have other discussions ongoing [with smaller players] that are not yet announced.

Given the strategy is to secure access to vaccines as soon as possible, the reality is that big companies have the most resources and capability and experience to actually develop safe vaccines for millions of people. That is not to say small companies don’t have the innovation – they absolutely do.

We backed Oxford’s Jenner Institute as an academic group before they even signed up with AZ, but we were very encouraging that they should sign up with a major pharma company because that’s how you ensure global supply.

AN: How is the Vaccine Taskforce supporting the scaling up of the UK’s vaccine manufacturing capacity?

KB: We’ve got the VMIC [the Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre] on the Harwell campus, [Oxford,] which we expanded the scope of and accelerated the opening [by a year] to the middle of next year. The VMIC does what it says on the tin; it’s process development as well as bulk manufacturing, and it will have the flexible capability to manufacture different types of vaccines.

Last week, we bought a veterinary manufacturing plant in Braintree, which we are upgrading to turn into human vaccine manufacturing plant. The plant is being managed by the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, a fabulous team with a really good track record in complicated manufacturing.

These give us two permanent capabilities, each of which can manufacture flexibly; we wanted to ensure that they’ve got the capability to manufacture whatever vaccine format comes through.

But in the short term, we created the virtual VMIC, where we are working with Oxford Biomedica and we are hiring the staff that will ultimately go to VMIC. We’re are leveraging Oxford BioMedica‘s GMP manufacturing suites, so that we don’t have to wait until the VMIC itself opens.

[Essentially], we’re putting in place the capability that we will need, which means we will have millions of doses of a vaccine manufactured and ready to deploy as soon as the regulators approve.

AN: How is the UK Vaccines Taskforce going to execute its second strategy of international access to vaccines?

 KB: This is a global pandemic and just sorting out the UK will not solve the problem. We are not pursuing a strategy of vaccine nationalism. We are very keen to ensure that all those that need to be protected against Covid-19 are.

We’re in bilateral discussions with different countries about their capabilities and what they need help with. There are some countries, for example, that have spare manufacturing capacity, but they can’t secure access to vaccines. It is easy for us to say you can help us in this way and we can help you in another.

We’ve [also] got discussions going on with [Gavi’s] COVAX. It is an initiative that high-income countries pay into – part of the payment is for vaccines in their own country and the other part is to ensure that vaccines are distributed to low-income countries.

Then, of course, the UK is the biggest funder of CEPI [Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations], and a very major funder of Gavi. So, we are putting our money where our mouth is to make sure that we are providing the financial support to enable low-income countries to receive vaccines.

AN: How is the Vaccines Taskforce ensuring the UK is better prepared for future pandemics?

KB: [As] we have heavily geared up our manufacturing, next time we could start manufacturing very quickly at the sites – VMIC and Braintree – we have now secured.

One thing that surprised me when I took on this role is that even though we all have NHS numbers, there was no national capability to recruit people into trials. So we launched an NHS website that enables anybody to register their interest in learning more about Covid-19 vaccine trials. We would like to get 500,000 people registered around the UK, especially those who are the most clinically vulnerable.

In this pandemic, this will help us when we have local breakout hotspots. It means we can recruit very quickly from those who’ve already indicated interest.

[The registry] is also relevant for future pandemics [because] if we’ve got a pool of people that we can then draw on quickly for large-scale trials, I think this is such an important part of legacy.