Throughout the 20th century, UK researchers have built a strong network of international collaborators and partnerships, although it has tended to be focused on a relatively small number of countries. As our world becomes increasingly connected, bringing new opportunities for international scientific exchanges and training, it’s easier than ever before to forge partnerships and collaborations wherever they are needed.
In the past, many vaccine research projects in lower-income countries where many of the studied diseases are endemic were carried out by visiting teams of European or American scientists. Today, most of the pioneering research projects and papers published on vaccine research have a long list of scientists and institutional partners drawn from many countries, including across Africa and Asia. Working together with scientific organisations in these regions enables UK researchers to share expertise and resources, and creates new opportunities to empower and upskill local scientists.
UK research brings vaccines where they’re needed
New vaccines are often developed in higher income countries like the UK and do eventually reach low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), but logistical and financial challenges mean that this process can take a long time. For example, the first conjugate pneumococcal vaccines were licensed in Europe twenty years ago, but they still are not available everywhere.
UK research and funding are vital for speeding up the availability of vaccines in LMICs. International organisations like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, have been instrumental in making vaccines commonplace in these countries, with strategic funding from the Wellcome Trust and MRC also Working together for global health playing a significant role. These efforts have increased vaccine coverage globally, with 86% of infants worldwide now receiving the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine.
Harnessing the ‘network effect’
Current vaccine development pathways are expensive, complicated and convoluted, with each new product often taking 10–15 years to come to fruition. Delays and challenges during the development process can stop life-saving vaccines from ever making it to market. Networks that bring together international experts from industry, academia, philanthropy and government can help overcome these roadblocks and deliver crucial vaccines where they are needed most.
The UK leads five vaccine research networks:
- The VALIDATE Network is working on vaccinations for diseases caused by complex pathogens like tuberculosis, leishmaniasis, melioidosis, and leprosy
- The IVVN Network is focusing on developing veterinary vaccines for diseases affecting agriculture in low- and middle-income countries
- The HIC-Vac Network supports human infection challenge studies to accelerate vaccine development
- The IMPRINT Network is developing safe and effective vaccines for pregnant women and newborns
- The BactiVac Network is accelerating the development of vaccines for bacterial diseases
We have been amazed by the sheer enthusiasm for the. Network among our international colleagues. It has grown. extraordinarily rapidly, and we now have members in around. fifty countries all over the world - Dr Beth Holder, IMPRINT Network
Despite the challenges associated with coordinating such large international networks, they have been very successful and sprouted collaborations that have impacted research around the globe. Besides bringing together experts to share ideas and resources, the networks also provide small research grants for overcoming research hurdles or generating pilot data. They also play a vital role in building research capacity in LMICs by providing post-doctoral fellowships, collaboration opportunities and training for early-career researchers.
From Nepal to the world
Professor Andrew Pollard from the University of Oxford has been tracking infectious diseases in Nepal for 15 years. After identifying typhoid as one of the commonest killers of under-fives in the country, he and his collaborators developed a new conjugate typhoid vaccine that was first tested in the UK and manufactured by the Indian company Bharat Biotech International.
The vaccine underwent large-scale trials in Nepal and elsewhere in Asia and Africa, with interim results showing that it reduced typhoid infections by an impressive 82%. In 2019, the vaccine was employed by the Pakistani health authorities to tackle an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant typhoid. Following its success, the vaccine is now being rolled out to many more countries including Zimbabwe and Liberia, supported by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
An army of African scientists
Professor Faith Osier is a group leader at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi, Kenya, where she’s working on promising malaria vaccine candidates. She established the SMART consortium, bringing together scientists from seven African countries to share resources, training and data to support malaria vaccine research.
My heart beats for the science in Africa - Professor Faith Osier, Group Leader, KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme
Osier also works closely with UK institutions, including the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Our collaborators in the UK provide access to high-end technology that we do not have or that we cannot get working quickly here, including technologies like sequencing, proteomics, and structural biology,” she says. “They also support the training of African scientists, allowing students to visit and work in their laboratories and learn new technical skills.”
“My heart beats for science in Africa,” Osier admits “We need African scientists to work to eradicate diseases in Africa. I have a vision that African researchers can be involved in vaccine development from the beginning of discovery, to upscaling, conducting trials, regulation, and right through to the end of the process. To do that, we rely on our well-resourced colleagues to support their education and training.”