The past few years have shown the outstanding ability of biotech to counteract the most devastating effects of the pandemic, and the leading role the UK's science base has played in these efforts. From finding the first life-saving treatment for COVID to creating an at-cost vaccine, Britain has led the world.
Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, it's clear that the Government has become dangerously incompetent in its approach to handling the biotech sector, something that could not only be catastrophic for the UK but also cost many lives around the world.
Kate Bingham recently spoke about how the UK Government cancelled the contract for inactivated whole-virus vaccines potentially in "bad-faith", potentially damaging the UK's ability to combat pandemics in future. The manufacturer of the vaccines, Valneva, had run UK clinical trials whilst investing its manufacturing operations in Scotland. Some scientists believe that this whole-virus vaccine could be "variant-proof" and Phase III trial results have been positive.
Today the FT has also reported that the UK's pioneering Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC) is being put up for sale by the UK Government, despite the public investing £200m in the plant. This could be catastrophic for future variants or pandemics as the VMIC is designed to have "capacity to produce enough vaccine doses to serve the entire UK population in as little as six months".
University of Southampton spin-off company, Synairgen, last year posted positive preliminary trial results for their COVID-19 trials, finding their SNG001 treatment "reduced the odds of developing severe disease or dying by 79%". Trial results have also shown positive results in COPD patients, raising hope this drug could be stockpiled not just for handling not just future variants but also future respiratory pandemics and winter flu. The phase III results for SNG001 are expected early next year. This is even more important given Merck recently reported that their COVID pill is far less effective than initially reported. Despite the Government having an Antivirals Taskforce, it appears that no orders have yet been placed for SNG001.
There is talk that this new variant may well be a "good variant", more transmissible but less lethal, but this is very far from certain. Sarah Gilbert has also previously written that it is unlikely that any variant will be able to fully defeat the vaccines, but this this variant contains more mutations than any of us previously imagined on the very part the vaccines target. In any event, the damage being done to the UK biotech sector by the current Government approach is likely to have consequences in future healthcare emergencies, with pandemics likely to become more common in future.
Even more concerning, there seems to be a void of expertise to understand these issues at the elected layer of Government. The current PM is a classics graduate whilst the current health secretary studied economics and politics. This current approach should be politically devastating for the Government, but the opposition leader is a lawyer and the Shadow Health Minister studied politics and philosophy. The opposition has found itself contributing nothing positive to the Vaccine Taskforce under Kate Bingham's leadership, so I doubt they will have anything positive to contribute going forward.
There is time to avert disaster here, but I doubt the opportunity will be seized.