The life sciences industry is a key part of the UK economy, worth over £70 billion per year, and plays a crucial role in developing and delivering vaccines both here and abroad. The UK bioscience ecosystem combines a strong academic tradition with robust commercial research - together with stable sources of charitable, government and industrial funding - which all play a part in vaccine innovation.
It takes a global village to create a vaccine
It takes years and costs hundreds of millions of pounds to undertake the journey from a bright idea in the lab to a safe and effective mass-produced vaccine. Industrial partners may have the power, money and scale to develop, test and manufacture vaccines, but they cannot do it alone.
Global networks of manufacturers and funders are vital for the success of vaccines. For example, a recent tuberculosis vaccine was co-funded by GSK, the European Commission, the UK’s Department for International Development, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The rights to develop the final product now belong to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, so they can make sure it is available in LMICs where the disease is most prevalent.
Although international pharmaceutical companies may have a global focus, they interact closely with researchers in the UK - several global pharmaceutical companies have vaccine research hubs located in the UK, including Pfizer and GSK. Industry relies on academic collaborators for the fundamental research into infectious diseases and immunity that underpins vaccine development. It is also dependent on public health organisations to support the clinical trials that enable new vaccines to reach the people who need them. But this isn’t just a one-way flow of information. For example, Pfizer is working closely with the IMPRINT Network, which focuses on maternal and neonatal immunisation, offering lab placements for academic researchers to develop their skills.
Embracing maternal vaccines
Traditionally, companies have been wary of developing vaccines for pregnant women. But the outstanding success of the maternal whooping cough, flu and tetanus vaccines proves that research into immunisation during pregnancy can have a major impact on public health. Maternal vaccines now feature heavily in the development pipelines of many companies, targeting diseases such as group B streptococcus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Everything we do, we do in collaboration. It’s a two-way conversation, and we need to have people inside and outside the company on the same wavelength - Dr Stephen Lockhart, Pfizer
RSV is a major cause of childhood deaths, particularly in poorer countries, and kills around 60,000 children under the age of five every year worldwide. There are currently no approved vaccines for RSV, despite more than 50 years of research, and the World Health Organization has prioritised the development of maternal vaccinations that can protect newborns against the disease. Several companies are now focusing their scientific firepower on RSV and there are numerous candidates currently in development.
Boosting UK vaccine manufacturing capacity
Another example of collaboration between academic, government and industrial research is the new Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Oxfordshire. This is the first facility fully dedicated to the development and manufacturing of vaccines in the UK. It is supported by several leading pharmaceutical companies such as Merck Sharp and Dohme, Johnson & Johnson and GE Healthcare, and academic institutions including the University of Oxford, and UKRI. Announced in 2018 and originally due to be finished in 2022, completion has been brought forward to 2021 to increase UK vaccine manufacturing capacity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Providing accessible vaccines for low- and middle-income countries
Although global vaccine companies make the majority of their profits in high-income countries, they also work to ensure that vaccines are available in the countries where they are needed most.
To support this effort, companies have been researching ways of making prices as cheap as possible and adapting vaccines for smooth delivery in LMICs. Developing products that are easy to ship and store, do not require refrigeration, and are ready-to-use are vital areas of research for many vaccine manufacturers. Several companies, including Pfizer and GSK, have developed multi-dose vials that reduce waste and are easier to transport, reducing the cost of each dose.
Meningitis C vaccine: a Great British success story
During the 1990s, there was a series of outbreaks of meningitis around the world caused by group C Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. Cases in the UK grew throughout the decade, reaching around 1,500 cases and 150 deaths per year.
Although the first vaccines against the disease were developed in the 1970s, they did not offer lasting immunity and were ineffective in babies and toddlers, so they weren’t widely used. Based on the success of a conjugate vaccine for Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) in the early 1990s, the UK Department of Health redirected vaccine research towards developing a conjugate meningitis C (MenC) vaccine that would be effective for infants and young children.
Three vaccine manufacturers agreed to be involved in the project and co-sponsored clinical trials alongside government-funded researchers, resulting in the world’s first MenC vaccine which was licensed in 1999. The Department of Health soon added the vaccine to the childhood immunisation schedule and initiated a catch-up program for older children, reducing cases of meningitis C by 87% by 2001. Other countries soon followed the UK’s lead, saving thousands of lives. The MenC vaccine represents a great vaccine success story and shows what we can achieve with proactive collaboration between all parts of the vaccine research community.