The Commercial Practicalities Of Preparing For The Next Pandemic


Much like the media roadshow to promote it, Kate Bingham’s new book detailing her experience as the head of the UK’s Vaccine Task Force during the Covid-19 pandemic pulls no punches. The book’s biggest takeaway is Bingham’s assertion that the UK has failed to prepare for the next pandemic by missing the educational opportunities presented by the last one.

Chief among her concerns is that the value of vaccine development and pathogen-related R&D is not being realised – both from a public health and economic perspective. It’s a view that I am sympathetic to. At a time when we are focused on kick-starting the UK economy, connecting the dots between our commercial strengths in R&D and advanced manufacturing with the medical needs of the wider world is imperative.

It’s through this lens perhaps, that we should view the recent rapid growth in the number of pathogen-handling labs around the world. More than 40 new biosafety labs are currently planned, including 27 to the highest levels of containment, with nations like India leading the way. While these labs aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of pandemic preparedness, they point to the willingness of others to outstrip UK investment and overtake the seven labs we currently have here.

Building on Bingham’s argument, there are a number of factors that make pandemic preparedness something the UK is well-placed to capitalise on. The creation of The Pandemic Institute in Liverpool and Pandemic Sciences Institute in Oxford was a natural outcome of the Covid-19 crisis. These institutes both benefit from the conscious clustering of experts in regional life sciences hubs across the UK, including the North West, West Midlands and, of course, the ‘golden triangle’ to deliver world-leading research quickly and effectively.

But I would argue that we need to be doing more to support these regional hubs and, in particular, to bring high spec testing facilities closer to the commercially-minded organisations, campuses and innovation zones that shape their outputs for market.

The ability to do so though continues to be constrained by commercial practicalities. Biosafety labs, by their very nature, require the strictest containment and security standards, and are ultimately expensive to run at a time when the government is focussed on balancing the books. While it would take significant political will to underwrite and reduce the market barriers developers like my employer Bruntwood SciTech face when developing highly regulated labs, the long-term commercial benefits should not be discounted.

If we are to witness another pandemic in the future – which of course may not carry the same consequences as Covid-19 – it’s clear that we need to see science featuring higher up the government’s agenda. We also need that to be the case if the UK economy is to deliver growth and generate prosperity for all – something the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has recently made a point of.

It’s with that in mind that I welcome the re-appointment of George Freeman as the UK’s science minister under Rishi Sunak. I have long called for the post to carry greater seniority within government and any initiative to increase its political heft needs to be progressed if we are to be taken seriously as a nation wanting to be viewed as a science superpower by 2030.

By embracing life sciences as an engine for growth, we can not only avoid the mistakes of the last pandemic but lead the preparation for the next.



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