UK ‘unsafe’ from future pandemic threats, says Oxford Vaccine Group director

The UK is “really unsafe” from future pandemic threats, a leading academic has told MPs.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director at the Oxford Vaccine Group, said he was concerned that not enough work was being done to research different viruses and bacteria which pose a threat.

Sir Andrew (pictured), whose team created the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 jab during the pandemic, said there had already been “decades” of work into coronavirus vaccines before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

But “we are nowhere near the beginning of that starting gun” for other microbes, he told the Science and Technology Committee.

“We already knew a lot about coronaviruses and how to make vaccines for them – there had been decades of research on coronavirus vaccines,” Sir Andrew said.

“One of the problems that we have is most of those other microbes which are out there which could threaten us, we haven’t done any of that work.

“If it were to take 10 or 20 years to do the research and development… we are nowhere near the beginning of that starting gun.

“I think that’s one of the areas I see the most concern about… are we doing enough to look at the different families of viruses and bacteria which we already know are a threat but we don’t have enough understanding about?

“And that work needs years of investment to try and move it forwards.”

He added: “If you think about the defence against something unknown, which is clearly a really important way to think about pandemics, we don’t know when they’re going to happen – we’re pretty sure they will happen again, it might be in a year or it might be in 50 years.

“Then you think about other types of defence we have such as military defence… I think the Government’s figures (are) about £45 billion investment in a year into defence – we recognise that we need to do stuff for peacetime, even though hopefully we don’t have to deploy that.

“But for pandemics we’re putting a fraction of that, tiny fraction of that into preparedness.

“And so for me, we are really unsafe at this moment for future pandemic threats, because we just don’t have that knowledge base that you need to even start the gun as we did in 2020 – and even then it took 11 months to have a vaccine.”

Meanwhile the former chairman of the UK Vaccine Taskforce launched a scathing attack on the Government, telling MPs that ministers had “destroyed” almost all the work of the group of experts.

Dr Clive Dix, former deputy chair of the taskforce who took over as chair in late 2020, said the UK had not built upon the successes of the taskforce, adding: “The reason the taskforce was formed was because there was no infrastructure to work across industry, academia and government to actually pull together what we did… What I’ve seen since April 2021 is a complete demise of all the activities that made that thing work, literally gone.

“What we’ve seen is a whole list of incompetent decisions being made.”

He said the Government trumpeted the success of the taskforce and then “destroyed almost everything that was going on”.

Dr Dix, who is now chief executive at C4X Discovery, added: “We have less resilience now because a lot of the manufacturers have walked away from the UK because of how badly they were treated in the tail end of the Vaccine Taskforce.”

He highlighted how the vaccine deal with French firm Valneva was terminated before the clinical trial results were even published, saying that the decision “nearly put the company on its knees”.

Meanwhile Dr Dix criticised the UK for not having a “strong relationship” with British vaccine manufacturer GSK.

Asked whether the right lessons have been learned by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Government, he said: “The lessons were learned by a small group of us that were running the Vaccine Taskforce, and it never really got transported into the current thinking of the Government.”

Dr Dix also criticised ministers for putting key recommendations from the Vaccine Taskforce “on the shelf”.

The committee also heard from experts behind the Lighthouse Laboratories – set up to aid diagnostics during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, chief scientist at Health Scotland who was seconded to the Department of Health and Social Care to take on responsibilities for the Lighthouse Laboratories in 2020, said that putting the Rosalind Franklin Covid Laboratory in Leamington Spa up for sale was a “missed opportunity”.

Professor Chris Molloy, chief executive of Medicines Discovery Catapult, who was director of the UK Lighthouse Labs network during the pandemic, said the UK needed to keep potential lab space to “fight the next war”.

It comes as the UKHSA published its new Pathogen Genomics Strategy.

The five-year plan outlines how the UKHSA intends to “integrate genomics into every aspect of infectious disease control”.

UKHSA chief executive Dame Jenny Harries said: “UK experts in the field of pathogen genomics made a vital contribution to the Covid-19 pandemic response and pathogen genomics remains central to the national and international effort to keep the public safe from many other types of infectious disease threats, from tuberculosis to mpox and avian influenza.

“We know it will become even more important in the years to come, and our new strategy will ensure that UKHSA continues to be at the forefront of implementing this technology to keep our communities safe, save lives and protect livelihoods.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2024, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.