It has come to light that British scientists are preparing for a potential pandemic of avian influenza in humans and that several pharmaceutical companies are already in advanced phases of developing vaccines to protect global populations against a future outbreak.
The Government’s top-secret laboratories in Porton Down are preparing to evaluate the efficacy of avian influenza vaccines for humans developed by AstraZeneca, Moderna, and other companies.
Scientists at the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre (VDEC) of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which is located on a high-security campus near Salisbury, Wiltshire, are also developing lateral flow tests that could swiftly detect bird flu in the event of a pandemic.
The center has access to 500,000 blood samples obtained from NHS employees during the COVID pandemic as part of the SARS-CoV2 immunity and reinfection evaluation surveillance program (Siren), which are currently being used to develop diagnostic tests for avian influenza.
The UKHSA is already conducting surveillance of the virus among poultry workers, who would be at the forefront of any significant bird flu outbreak among humans. Since the program’s inception in March, routine asymptomatic testing of farm laborers has detected four cases of bird flu; however, none of those infected exhibited severe symptoms or transmitted the virus to others.
As part of the UKHSA’s surveillance strategy, however, patients presently in intensive care in NHS hospitals with severe respiratory infections are also being tested for avian influenza as well as normal seasonal flu as part of an intensification of plans for a potential bird flu pandemic.
Since October 2021, the H5N1 strain of avian influenza has killed millions of poultry worldwide, but in recent months, outbreaks of the virus in mammals have heightened fears of a human pandemic.
Recent developments include the detection of avian influenza in cat food in South Korea, while scientists continue to investigate why the virus infected and killed several cats in Poland in June.
Since the current outbreak began nearly two years ago, there have been only a handful of human cases, and there is no evidence that bird flu can transmit between humans. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) warned last month that the “alarming rise” of cases in animals increased the likelihood of it evolving into a virus that can be transmitted from person to person.
In the next five years, there is a one-in-four chance of a new pandemic caused by any virus or pathogen, according to the Government’s new National Risk Register.
At VDEC in Porton Down, the world’s leading virologists are preparing to be able to deploy a vaccine within 100 days of identifying a pandemic threat.
COVID-19 samples obtained from healthcare employees are evaluated for their efficacy against a vaccine. This is a portion of the work being conducted at the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Center, part of the UKHSA at Porton Down, Wiltshire, United Kingdom. (Image by Tom Pilston)
This work involves collaborating with pharmaceutical companies that are developing vaccines for avian influenza as well as the current generation of COVID vaccines that will be administered to elderly and vulnerable individuals as part of a supplement program this fall.
Moderna, one of the foremost companies in the development of an mRNA vaccine against COVID, has conducted clinical trials for an avian flu vaccine, and VDEC is preparing to evaluate the prototype at Porton Down. In the event of human-to-human transmission, it is probable that it would need to be modified, as the virus would have evolved to transmit between humans if it ever reached this stage.
VDEC, which is home to more than 200 scientists operating in nearly 3,000 square kilometers of laboratory space, is also developing the world’s first vaccine against Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, which kills one-third of infected individuals.
I was among a group of media organizations that were shown inside the top-secret facilities at Porton Down for the first time, as scientists use this so-called “peacetime” to prepare for the next pandemic in the aftermath of the COVID outbreak.
VDEC was established during the COVID pandemic, but its activities have remained a closely guarded secret until now. Its scientists are also preparing for a potential outbreak of so-called “Disease X,” a virus whose origin is unknown and for which there is no vaccine or treatment.
Porton Down houses approximately 90 percent of the United Kingdom’s Category 3 high-containment, top-security laboratories that handle lethal pathogens, and virtually all of those classified as Category 4, the highest level of security.
One of the laboratories on the campus, which I can see from the outside, is so top secret that it cannot be photographed for fear that terrorists will use any information about its location or appearance to target it and gain access to the deadliest viruses on earth to use as bioweapons.
Even employees with security clearance to work at Porton Down must undergo additional screening to access the highly sensitive laboratory.
UKHSA chief executive Jenny Harries and top scientists leading VDEC’s work insist they are better prepared for the next pandemic than they were for COVID, one of the main issues investigated in the initial phase of Lady Hallett’s inquiry into the UK’s response to the virus.
But Dame Jenny warned that climate change and urbanization are increasing the likelihood of another pandemic.
She stated that COVID was not a “once-in-a-century event” and added, “The overall risk is increasing, but we cannot pinpoint a specific date.”
While the United Kingdom is better prepared for the next pandemic than it was for COVID, Dame Jenny stated, “We are at the beginning of a journey of maintaining the legacy and building the scientific opportunity that will propel us forward.”
Professor Isabel Oliver, the chief scientific officer of the UKHSA, stated that the United Kingdom was “surely” better prepared than for COVID but added, “However, it should not be assumed.
It is difficult to know and comprehend the impact they will have until we can characterize and determine the severity of the infection or its transmissibility.
We can’t afford to be complacent, as we’ve seen in recent years. And there is no doubt that new infections and pandemics will emerge in the near future.”
Prof. Oliver stated, in response to a question about whether the United Kingdom is prepared for a bird flu pandemic in particular, “We have been increasing our preparedness efforts for some time now, and there is critical work occurring here at Porton Down, such as the development of assays that will allow us to understand the virus and how it might affect people.”
Dr. Bassam Hallis, the deputy director of Porton Down, stated, “We are unquestionably better prepared than we were at the start of COVID. The facilities we have, the scientists who do the actual work, and the facility apparatus do nothing by themselves.
“We are at the forefront of science and technology in order to continue to make progress and improve in order to maintain our preparedness, and we will continue to do so moving forward.”
The global “100 Days Mission,” launched in 2021 during the United Kingdom’s G7 presidency, aims to have a vaccine available for distribution within 100 days of identifying a new pandemic threat.
The first COVID vaccine was deployed 362 days after the first cases were identified in Wuhan, China, and Dame Jenny acknowledged that the 100-day target was “really stretching the ambition, but if we’re going to prevent a pandemic, that’s exactly what we need to do”.
Dame Jenny stated, “We have pathogens we know about that we believe could be a problem, such as COVID new variants, which we are evidently monitoring, and pathogenic avian influenza, which is on the list because we are learning more about it…
“And then there’s Pathogen X, Disease X, for which we must be prepared… While it is evident that we do not know what it is, we can prepare for some virus families, for instance.”
If “Disease X” is the next threat, as stated by Dame Jenny, “we’re going to have to do a lot of work very quickly.” For some pathogens, meeting the 100-day target would be simpler than for others.
She added that the development of prototype vaccines at Porton Down would make the United Kingdom better poised to prevent “Disease X” from escalating into a pandemic: “If it’s Disease X or Pathogen X, the work we’ve done will allow us to operationally scale up a very streamlined and rapid response.”
At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Government scientists at Porton Down were only able to conduct 100 experiments per week on candidate vaccines; this number has since been increased to 3,000 per week thanks to the 2021 opening of VDEC.
Prof. Oliver stated that Porton Down was opening its doors to VDEC because “we are eager for you to understand the work we are doing to ensure our safety.”
Neutralization of new COVID variants is in progress in Cat3 safety cabinets at the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre, part of the UK Health and Safety Executive (UKHSA), in Wiltshire, UK. (Image by Tom Pilston)
She added, “We have a very difficult and challenging task protecting people from diseases and environmental hazards… It is a difficult task because the danger of new and emerging infections is rising.”
Dr. Hallis stated, “For us, the most important thing is ensuring how much we are doing today, in peacetime, to be in a position to respond more swiftly in the event of a newly emerging virus…
We have a lengthy history of working with seasonal influenza at Porton Down, which puts us in an excellent position to respond to avian influenza.
The goal is to develop these prototype capabilities and have them available so that we can respond more rapidly.
Two of VDEC’s primary laboratories at Porton Down were constructed with £65 million from the government, and one-third of VDEC’s annual funding comes from UKHSA, with the remaining two-thirds coming from private contracts.
Ministers were criticized, however, for placing up for sale the £200 million Government-funded Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre in Harwell, Oxfordshire, which opened in 2018 during the height of the pandemic. It was ultimately sold to Catalent, a private pharmaceutical company, in the past year.
At the time, the government insisted that the transaction was necessary to maintain its operation.
Despite this, it is probable that funding for vaccine development at Porton Down will continue, given the success of the government’s vaccination campaign during the pandemic.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay stated that VDEC would “cement the United Kingdom’s global position as a leader in pandemic preparedness, vaccine development, and scientific discovery” and that “hundreds of the world’s leading scientists are already working on vaccines against potential global health threats to protect the United Kingdom and save lives around the globe.”
This state-of-the-art facility will also help us fulfill our promise to produce novel vaccines within 100 days of identifying a new threat.