New vaccine facility revealed at Porton Down

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The team is working to create tests or “assays” for a range of arenaviruses for use in diagnosis, contact tracing and vaccine design in future outbreaks.

In a level three laboratory, we watched as scientists scan samples of XBB166, a new Covid-19 variant currently circulating in the UK.

All of the machines in the lab are named after Star Wars characters, with photos of the likes of Qui-Gon Jinn and Luke Skywalker marking each one. It’s a way of relieving tension, it seems.

Since the pandemic, the number of scientists working on vaccines at the UKHSA’s Porton Down site has grown by 50 per cent. But it is new technology that’s really allowed the work to scale.

In the first Covid peak, the centre was only able to test 100 blood samples a week to monitor virus’s spread – a factor that is blamed by many for hindering the UK’s response. Now, however, 3,000 samples can be tested each week.

Dr Hallis said this capability would have a huge impact on lives if another pandemic was declared.

“At the start of the pandemic we were asked by the JCVI what vaccines to use. We were only working with 100 samples a week but now we can do 3,000. So now we would be able to get that data much quicker to the government to allow them to make decisions faster,” said Dr Hallis. 

UK ‘better prepared for another pandemic’

The team is also optimistic AI will speed things up further if another pandemic takes hold. 

“AI will help us identify virus mutations and it will give us a much speedier way to repurpose antivirals and therapeutics,” Dr Hallis told The Telegraph. “With Covid, all our treatments weren’t new, they already existed. AI could have helped identify the treatments earlier.”

The new facility will feed into the global “100 day mission”, launched in 2021 under the UK G7 presidency. The idea is that by doing the scientific groundwork early, an effective vaccine should be available within 100 days of a new outbreak – whatever the pathogen.

“For previous vaccines, it took five to ten years [to develop], for Covid it was under 365 days, so 100 days is really stretching it, but that’s what the vaccine centre is designed for,” said Prof Dame Harries.

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