The pandemic has highlighted the UK’s vaccine research expertise but has also exposed shortcomings in the funding model for supporting this essential work. Oxford University and Imperial College London both developed promising vaccines within weeks of COVID-19 being discovered but their progress was delayed by bureaucracy and the lack of quick, adequate Government investment. The need to write funding applications delayed progressing straight into trials and major state funding only came in April 2020, weeks after the first lockdown began.
Other countries invested significantly greater sums. BioNTech had a $350m grant from the German government to test five candidates and Moderna received $1.5bn from the US government. By contrast, the UK government invested £42.5m in April and £84m in May 2020 across Oxford and Imperial, with the latter only funded to progress one candidate self-amplifying RNA (saRNA) vaccine into clinical trials. Earlier in 2020 one funder told Imperial’s Professor Robin Shattock that their saRNA vaccine ‘wasn’t of sufficient priority’. Imperial’s vaccine can be stored in the fridge and is self-amplifying, two major potential advantages over the successful Moderna and Pfizer RNA vaccines. Imperial’s vaccine will now not progress to stage 3 trials in the UK, so a potentially valuable alternative vaccine was lost because of slow, inadequate research funding.
The UK should be proud of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and the wider vaccine roll out. However, both vaccines would have progressed more quickly if scientists had had the full resources and autonomy to progress their critical research. Faster development could have had significant benefits globally in this pandemic in terms of lives saved, financial damage averted and an accelerated return to normal life. Reforming the funding of university research would help to ensure that the UK is better able to respond to future global health crises.