Inside the UK’s first vaccines innovation centre

A new, state-of-the-art Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre was recently announced to address what is being called a structural gap in late-stage vaccine manufacturing in the UK. How will the plans improve emergency preparedness for epidemic threats? ​​​​Charlotte Edwards finds out.

Late last year, UK business secretary Greg Clark announced that the UK’s first dedicated Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC) will be built at The Oxford Science Park (TOSP).  The centre will cost around £66m to build and is scheduled to be up and running by the spring of 2022. 

The centre has received its funding through the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Medicines Manufacturing challenge.

The VMIC is part of the ISCF’s Leading Edge Healthcare challenge theme, which is aiming to speed up patient access to new medicines and treatments, build on the country’s position in this area, increase UK productivity, and encourage more UK investment in this sector.

What will the centre do? 

The VMIC has been pitched as a purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility that will facilitate the rapid manufacturing of vaccines in the event of a health pandemic affecting the UK, while also addressing the UK’s apparent structural gap in late-stage vaccine manufacturing process development. 

The centre will begin to develop and manufacture vaccines for clinical trials and will do this at a moderate scale for emergency preparedness for epidemic threats to the UK population, such as those from influenza and emerging highly-infectious epidemic pathogens like Ebola and Zika virus. 

There are also plans for the VMIC to develop new technologies and treatments, including personalised cancer vaccines and vectors for gene therapy.

The centre will begin to develop and manufacture vaccines for clinical trials.

Research at the centre will build on existing work funded by the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. 

The VMIC will also facilitate academic and industry collaboration on the development, design and manufacture of the proposed vaccines. The three academic institutions which have joined forces to make the new company, VMIC UK, are the University of Oxford, Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. They will be supported by Janssen and MSD (Merck), two pharmaceutical partners with extensive experience in vaccine manufacturing and development. 

GE Healthcare will provide the training required for staff to use the state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment at the new centre.

When the VMIC was first announced, TOSP managing director Piers Scrimshaw-Wright said: “The Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre will be a major part of the UK life sciences research and manufacturing infrastructure, and we are delighted that it will be located here.” 

What is the structural gap in UK vaccine manufacturing? 

The UK only makes a small amount of its own vaccines and so is heavily reliant on imports from other countries, when it could have its own institutions working together on new developments. Hence the manufacturing gap. 

In light of Brexit and some recent vaccine shortages, the UK is investing in using its own resources to tackle the problem.

Earlier this year, pharmacists were reporting struggling to obtain many common medicines including painkillers and anti-depressants. At the same time the Department of Health had reported that there were 80 medicines in such short supply that it had to pay a premium for them.

The UK only makes a small amount of its own vaccines.

There have also been fears that a hard Brexit or a no-deal scenario could lead to a shortage of vaccines and other vital medication in the UK. Most of the commonly used vaccines in the country, such as the HPV vaccine, are imported from overseas, including many EU countries. 

The creation of the VMIC is one way that the British Government is working to tackle this issue by boosting domestic production and reducing reliance on European vaccine supplies.   

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