The UK’s vaccine rollout has been one of the few success stories of the pandemic. More than 24 million people in the UK have now received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and the country is on track to inoculate everyone aged 50 and over by mid-April, well ahead of other European countries and the United States.
But what does this success mean for the future of research and development in the healthcare industry? And do the exceptional circumstances make it a one-off or can the R&D industry learn from it?
A number of factors led to the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK. These range from increased public and private funding spurred on by the crisis, to advances in technology, the ability to conduct clinical trials in a population with high levels of virus and a successful collaboration between a pharmaceutical company and academia.
But it didn’t happen overnight. Much of the success is down to the UK’s world-class R&D capacities and research into malaria vaccines carried out over decades. “We weren’t working from a zero base,” says Bryan Deane, director of new medicines and data policy at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Agency.
Dr Martin Michaelis, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kent, also highlights the role of R&D in the process. “It’s important to understand this didn’t come out of nothing,” he says. “As soon as the sequence of the new virus was available, people could immediately start to adapt the vaccine.”
The rapid development of coronavirus vaccines has been aided by new techniques in vaccine development. “In the initial stages of R&D, a lot of work is done to narrow the candidates down,” says Ana Nicholls, managing editor of industry at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Machine-learning techniques can be used to sift through studies very quickly to find potential candidates.”
Technological advances and the rapid rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine may have changed people’s expectations about what is possible to achieve and shown what can be achieved with the right investment.
“The increased focus on collaboration within the industry, between researchers, manufacturers and supply chains, has achieved results in record time and has now set the benchmark when it comes to best practice,” says Dr Jen Vanderhoven, director of the National Horizons Centre, a bioscience centre based in Darlington.
Lessons can be learnt from the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine success. A key takeaway is the importance of continued funding for R&D. The rationale behind funding is also significant, with Dr Ohid Yaqub, senior lecturer in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, pointing out that “too much focus on efficiency and productivity doesn’t always help”.
“What this exercise has shown is that some innovations can be unseen,” says Yaqub. “What you might want in an R&D system is a standing army of skilled, trained people with enough slack in the system to drop what they’re doing when they need to.”
Deane points to the “incredible collaboration” between academic institutions, governments and industry that enabled the development of Covid-19 vaccines. “One of the key learnings is that having collaborations has really helped us and are critical,” he says.
Regulators also showed a willingness to use emergency authorisations more widely than they had previously. Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), says the organisation wants to embed learnings from the pandemic into its future.
“Companies developing Covid vaccines have been invited to discuss their plans with the MHRA and to submit their data for rolling review as soon as it becomes available,” she says. “As of January 1, rolling review is one of the routes for new marketing authorisation applications.”
Despite the success in developing and rolling out vaccines at record speed and scale, there remain challenges. Many countries now have a huge debt burden, meaning funding is likely to be an ongoing challenge.
Plus, not all of the lessons from the pandemic can be neatly applied to other areas of science. Michaelis says: “You can’t transfer directly from one area to another. It’s not like, now in a short time we’ve produced a Covid-19 vaccine and so we’re going to solve Alzheimer’s disease or be better with cancer.”
Developing treatment is a lengthy process, from identification, to pre-clinical work and finally on to clinical trials, which means there is still a limit to the extent drug and treatment development can be speeded up. “There are a lot of things that need to happen that can’t be compromised,” says Deane. “Lots needs to be done before we can look at treatment in patients, for example.”
However, overall the vaccine success is likely to be positive for the future of R&D. “The most important lesson we should learn as a society is that basic research is very important,” says Michaelis. “Most big problems are not solved by applied research, they are solved by our general increase in knowledge or by serendipity.”
The global need and rapid response required to tackle Covid was the catalyst to do things in a different way. “The UK bioscience industry already knew what it was capable of,” says Vanderhoven. It just needed greater support to scale and accelerate timeframes.
Deane also believes the vaccine success is positive for the future of R&D because it’s led to more awareness and appreciation for it. “It’s definitely brought the importance of research and development very much into the public eye,” he concludes.