How the U.K. healthcare sector is leveraging its strengths to beat COVID-19

Guest Commentary: The U.K. has a formula that is working in efforts to beat COVID-19

Crisis is the mother of invention and COVID-19 is no exception. But amid all the gloom are signs of a nascent revolution in how we create and develop new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics. The U.K. life sciences industry is rising to the challenge with a mix of collaboration, speed, creativity and resource commitment, to capitalize on the science and technology it has invested in over the last few years.

This unprecedented rapid ramping-up of R&D will help the U.K. to not only find the solutions to this pandemic, but also help us to prepare for the next one and lay the foundations for a new life science industrial strategy.


Oxford University’s Jenner Institute is a prime example of the U.K.’s success. It is at the head of the global race to develop a vaccine, dosing its first subject last week with the vaccine ChAdOx1 nCoV-19.

This success is no happy accident. It is the result of extensive and urgent collaboration between scientists at academic institutions as well as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies along with charities, government and clinical research organizations.

The UK Vaccine Task Force epitomizes this cross-sector collaboration. The U.K. BioIndustry Association (BIA) is playing a central role, assembling experts and companies throughout the U.K. to accelerate the difficult challenge of scaling up production of a viable vaccine.


The U.K.’s centralized NHS has an existing national clinical trial infrastructure, which enables rapid roll-out of new clinical investigations. The RECOVERY trial, which is testing the efficacy of existing therapies in the treatment of COVID-19, recruited 7,000 patients in only four weeks.

Regulators have shown remarkable flexibility with the MHRA approving the Jenner Institute’s COVID-19 vaccine trial in seven working days.


Scientists are finding new ways to find ways to tackle the virus.

Biotechnology companies, including two SV Health Investor oncology portfolio companies, are re-tooling their drug discovery platforms to discover new COVID-19 drugs. Bicycle Therapeutics plc (NASDAQ:BCYC) is using its unique macrocycle platform to find new drugs for COVID-19. Alchemab Therapeutics Ltd. is looking for protective antibodies in convalescing COVID-19 patients using cell sequencing and machine learning to aid that search.

The U.K. has a unique ability to share large amounts of data digitally, which makes it easier to share real-time information about the disease and treatments internationally so it can be reviewed and compared.

Industry bodies are working together to develop new antibody tests to give greater information about how many people have had the disease. And healthcare companies are working with artificial intelligence firms to launch monitoring apps, which will help to relieve pressure on the NHS by slowing the outbreak.

Resource Commitment

Pharmaceutical and biotech companies want to get drugs and vaccines to patients as quickly as possible to relieve the burden of this disease. Many are making significant investments without profit as their primary motivation.

Academic institutions such as the Francis Crick Institute are adapting their academic labs to run large-scale COVID-19 diagnostic tests.

The extraordinary pace of funding provided by the government and charities such as the Wellcome Trust means the best projects have access to cash enabling them to scale up fast.

Building the future

The rapid progress triggered by the COVID-19 crisis will have a lasting impact. This has the potential to inspire a younger generation to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, many of whom are enthusiastically printing 3D PPE equipment in their bedrooms. STEM has never been so valued. The entrepreneurs and scientists of the future are being shaped by such efforts.

It is data and science that will help us to combat this pandemic and restart economic activity. The success of science in defeating this disease should encourage further investment in education, academic institutions and healthcare companies.

The U.K. should take the best practices that emerge from this crisis and build on them for the future. That includes allowing U.K. biotech and pharmaceutical companies to speed up the process of taking drugs from the lab into clinical testing to change and save the lives of patients.

The adage “To go fast, go alone; to go far, go together,” has never been more appropriate. The U.K. is currently working with unprecedented unity and goodwill. Over the long term it will need to work with the rest of the world to deliver the therapeutics and vaccines humanity needs both now and in the future.

Kate Bingham is Managing Partner at SV Health Investors.
Signed commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of BioCentury.

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