Oxford on Steroids—Innovating to Save Lives amid the Age of Covid

The most visible work now being done in Oxford is on the vaccine front where the University, its spinout Vaccitech, and its partnership with AstraZeneca are garnering global headlines for making warp-speed progress on their vaccine. This has been topped off with news of BARDA providing AstraZeneca with up to $1.2 billion to fund Phase 3 trial in the US, and the US HHS is in talks with AZ to produce the Oxford vaccine, as the US acts to bring a vaccine to the US population in relatively short order.  Last month the Oxford/AZ team began testing the vaccine in a Phase I/II trial involving over 1,000 volunteers across sites in England, with data expected shortly that, if positive, would precipitate late-stage trials.  The hope remains that a vaccine could possibly be ready as early as September. And construction of a state-of-the-art production facility already underway at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire—the Vaccines Manufacturing & Innovation Centre (VMIC)—is being accelerated thanks to £131 million boost from UK Research & Innovation. This funding will also support Virtual VMIC (temporary facilities) which will be able to produce up to 40 million doses within months of a successful of covid-19 vaccine being approved for production.

The University of Oxford has been the number one research university for the last four years and its medical sciences division has been world leading for the last eight years.  A number of science parks have sprouted up around the city and the bevy of companies and organisations in the Oxford region spawned 4,312 patents last year, almost double the number from 2015.  While the streets of Oxford have been quiet during the lockdown, the labs and business talent at universities and companies in the region have been awash with activity,  largely aimed at tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elsewhere Oxford scientists have been working on antibody tests and diagnostics. Unicorn company and DNA sequencer Oxford Nanopore has assisted in supplying chemical reagents, tracking how the coronavirus is spreading, and rapid sequencing of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

Oxford has been blessed with a peerless spokesman and champion for all this activity in the Canadian Professor Sir John Bell (Regius Professor of Medicine at University of Oxford, Chair/and Architect of the UK Industrial Strategy Board). Sir John’s visibility on the national and international media stage, painting a measured yet optimistic picture, has been of huge import, especially in the US.  Within days of his television appearances on behalf of the Oxford vaccine effort, the Boston biotech company Moderna grabbed headlines with promising early results of their vaccine which looks to inject RNA to rev up the immune system, as distinct from the more traditionally-designed Oxford vaccine which contains the genetic material of the virus that causes COVID-19.  BARDA rewarded Moderna with $300 million of funding just days ago.  And now comes news of BARDA investing $1.2 billion in the Oxford vaccine trumping that. It is heady stuff indeed and hopefully feeds some optimism in terms of conquering Covid and the UK’s reputation for world-leading scientific innovation.

Meanwhile, scientists in other UK regions are also working to progress innovative testing, tracing, treatments, diagnosing, protecting healthcare workers and the public, and public health management in the fight against Covid. Science holds the solution to defeating this virus and so many other health challenges. British-educated health and life scientists at home and abroad should feel proud of the UK and our sector, toiling at organisations around the world, innovating to save lives.