Professor Isabel Oliver
Chief Scientific Officer, UK Health Security Agency
The world’s population is facing a rising tide of threats against health as factors like climate change and globalisation alter the spread of infectious diseases.
Recent years have highlighted, with sobering clarity, the devastating impact public health emergencies can have on our lives and livelihoods. And with the potential that a new, previously unknown pathogen, often referred to as ‘Disease X,’ could emerge at any time — or that a known pathogen could re-emerge — preparation is essential to minimise the impact on health and society.
Developing vaccines for the future
At UKHSA, we are focused on readying the UK against all eventualities, and vaccination is core to our strategy. Even amid responding to the global pandemic, we have been keeping one eye on the horizon, building the UK’s resilience against future threats to mitigate their impact.
That means ensuring the UK has early access to effective vaccines. Our work with industry and academia is central to that aim, particularly two landmark initiatives: UKHSA’s Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre (VDEC) and the Moderna-UK Strategic Partnership.
Both strive to push the boundaries of vaccine research and development for pandemic preparedness, promoting new ways of working with industry that will help us respond to health threats more effectively than ever before.
Targeting treatment against harmful pathogens
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that closer collaboration between government, industry and academia can lead to greater innovation, faster breakthroughs and better health outcomes — and these two initiatives are excellent examples of driving that collaboration forward.
VDEC grew from the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic and officially launched this summer. It brings together almost 300 scientists working in over 2,800 square metres of laboratory space with highly specialised capabilities at Porton Down to deliver world-leading science.
We are working with several vaccine manufacturers to ensure we have future access to effective vaccines as and when we need them
Its sole aim is to target the deadliest pathogens and those with pandemic potential by working with industry and academic institutions to help find, develop and evaluate new vaccines and treatments where none exist — or improve those that do. Its work includes rapid assessment of vaccines against new variants to ensure that our vaccination programmes are effective.
VDEC scientists have already discovered the possibility of developing a world-first vaccine against Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever — a virus spread by the bite of an infected tick that is fatal in about 30% of cases. The vaccine is in stage one clinical trials and, if successful, would be a global breakthrough.
Securing fast and effective vaccine development
We are working with several vaccine manufacturers to ensure we have future access to effective vaccines as and when we need them. The most recent development in that area is the UK’s 10-year partnership with Moderna, announced in 2022. The agreement secures future access to up to 250 million lifesaving vaccines per year, catering to demand, as well as funding research into new vaccines combatting various threats.
Under the partnership, Moderna is building new mRNA vaccine research and development and manufacturing facilities in the UK and has committed substantial funding to UK-based R&D activities over a 10-year period. The centre will also have the potential to develop vaccines targeting a range of illnesses, such as flu, cancer and rare diseases.
It will significantly boost our ability to respond to future pandemics and, alongside VDEC, support the global 100 Days Mission, launched in 2021 under the UK G7 presidency, with the ambitious aim of deploying an effective vaccine within 100 days of identifying a new pandemic threat.
Flexible response with maximum benefit
Our strategy is about building capacity and flexibility into the system for pandemic preparedness. It is nearly impossible to predict exactly what the next major public health threat will be; but, by laying the foundations ahead of time, we can ensure our response will be quick and effective — saving lives and minimising the impact on society. We have made a good start, and UKHSA continues working to ensure the UK leads the way.