UK scientists have been working on finding a vaccine for COVID-19 since January 2020.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has provided funding for the likes of the Oxford vaccine project, but is also investing in how the UK will manufacture a successful vaccine.
The speed at which COVID-19 vaccine projects have progressed demonstrate how previous work funded by UKRI has laid the foundations necessary for the rapid deployment of UK scientific expertise in tackling this pandemic.
Our investment meant leading vaccinologists and researchers with decades of experience were able to move quickly and develop promising candidate vaccines.
But there’s no use in having the world’s most effective vaccine if you can’t manufacture and distribute it at an acceptable cost.
That’s why UKRI has invested in vaccine manufacturing for decades, and significantly increased activity in this area in recent years.
Long-term investment in vaccine manufacturing
In 2018, UKRI announced £66 million for the UK’s first dedicated Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC). The goal was to promote, develop and accelerate the growth of the UK vaccine industry.
Also in 2018, the Vaccine Manufacturing and Research Centre was established by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
This was to find new ways to support vaccine manufacturing and delivery in low and middle income countries.
Alongside these landmark projects, UKRI funded many others to ensure the UK would have the capability to manufacture and distribute a vaccine when the time came.
When the pandemic arrived in 2020, UKRI reacted with unparalleled scale and speed to ensure all investments were ready and able to respond to the challenge, and that they were plugged into the UK’s wider vaccine, life sciences and pharmaceutical ecosystems.
An additional £131 million investment was announced by UKRI in May 2020, bringing its total investment in VMIC to £196 million.
Innovation in vaccine manufacturing
COVID-19 meant VMIC’s scheduled opening date had to be fast-tracked, and an instant route to action was required: virtual VMIC.
Andy Jones from Innovate UK and Director of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Medicines Manufacturing Challenge said:
Within days… VMIC was asked for a plan to dramatically expand and accelerate their delivery and in just weeks they’d developed a plan to increase the amount of vaccine they could produce from millions of doses to tens of millions and accelerate delivery of the facility by a year.
So, imagine our thoughts when we presented this to ministers and they said “It’s not enough, we need more, faster.”
That’s exactly what VMIC did. Supported by UKRI, VMIC and university spinout Oxford Biomedica established a rapid deployment centre, or virtual VMIC, while the permanent facility is under construction.
Speaking at the time, Matthew Duchars, Chief Executive Officer of VMIC, said:
This collaboration with Oxford Biomedica means that we can increase the UK’s capacity to manufacture viral vector vaccines in 2020 as part of a national effort in response to COVID-19.
This marks a major milestone for VMIC in setting up collaborative partnerships with industry. It is the first agreement outside of our founding partners under VMIC’s longer-term objective to work with, and enhance, the vaccine industry in the UK and abroad.
Virtual VMIC’s manufacturing lines have now been approved and will be fully operational by the end of 2020.
The physical VMIC facility will open in 2021, 12 months ahead of schedule, and will be able to produce up to 70 million vaccine doses in four to six months.
What happens after COVID-19?
VMIC will innovate new technologies, including the manufacture of personalised cancer vaccines and vectors for gene therapy.
It will also enable rapid global response to emerging, highly-infectious epidemic pathogens like Ebola and Zika.
VMIC was proposed to allow development and manufacture of vaccines for clinical trials and at scale, for emergency preparedness for epidemic threats to the UK population.
It addresses a structural gap in the UK’s late-stage vaccine development.
Throughout the pandemic, academia and industry have collaborated at a rate and scale rarely seen before, across manufacturing, distribution and storage, which was precisely the intention behind VMIC.
The VMIC is part of the ISCF’s Leading Edge Healthcare challenge theme (GOV.UK), which aims to speed up patient access to new medicines and treatments and build on the UK’s leadership in this area.
It will increase UK productivity and stimulate further investment in this sector in the UK.
Last updated: 30 December 2020