Having successfully navigated stringent security protocols at this remote facility, rare access has been granted to its cadre of scientists.
These experts are situated within the state-of-the-art Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre at Porton Down.
Their efforts extend the response to the Covid pandemic, with the goal of saving lives and minimising the need for future lockdowns when confronted with emerging diseases.
According to Prof Dame Jenny Harries, CEO of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which oversees these laboratories, “Covid is undoubtedly not an isolated incident.” She further expounds, “We describe it [Covid] as the most significant public health event in a century, yet none of us believe it will take another century before the next one comes along.”
She emphasises the mounting risk attributed to the convergence of climate change, urbanisation, and human proximity to animals—the wellspring of numerous emerging diseases capable of jumping to humans.
Nestled within the serene Wiltshire countryside near Salisbury, Porton Down stands as one of the few facilities globally equipped to study some of the most virulent viruses and bacteria.
Their containment freezers house pathogens such as Ebola. Adjacent structures encompass the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, a component of the Ministry of Defence, where the use of the nerve agent Novichok in the Salisbury poisonings was verified.
Initially erected as part of the emergency response to Covid, the vaccine laboratories, housed in dark green structures, have pivoted their focus as the acute demands of the pandemic have abated. The novel vaccine research hub zeroes in on three categories of threats:
1. Escalating challenges posed by established infections, like antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
2. Potential threats that could precipitate crises, including avian flu and emergent Covid variants.
3. “Disease X,” an unforeseen pathogen akin to Covid that could catch the world off guard.
The central objective is collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry, scientists, and medical practitioners to bolster all phases of vaccine development.
At Porton Down, scientists are currently engrossed in crafting the initial vaccine for Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, a tick-borne ailment that claims approximately a third of its victims.
This affliction is prevalent in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Asia, and its potential to expand is compounded by climate shifts.
Concurrently, the facility assesses vaccine efficacy. Notably, researchers here discerned that the Omicron variant could elude certain protections conferred by existing Covid vaccines.
Ongoing scrutiny of new Covid variants is executed by cultivating them in the laboratory, exposing them to antibodies from blood samples, and gauging their infectious potential.
Meanwhile, pivotal machines—dubbed “Qui-Gon,” “Obi-Wan,” “BB8,” and “Palpatine”—constitute the frontline against the world’s most extensive avian flu outbreak.
The H5N1 avian flu virus has devastated bird populations, with routine testing of farm labourers identifying asymptomatic cases in the UK. Remarkably, the team’s testing capacity has escalated from a meagre 100 samples weekly prior to the pandemic to surpassing 3,000.
This endeavour contributes to the “100 Days Mission,” an audacious campaign to devise a vaccine against emergent threats within a mere hundred days. Historically, the creation and testing of vaccines spanned a decade.
Yet, the unique circumstances of the pandemic led to the production of the first Covid vaccines within a year, with distribution commencing in December 2020. Estimatedly, Covid vaccines preserved over 14 million lives within the initial year of deployment.
Prof Isabel Oliver, Chief Scientific Officer of UKHSA, envisions the potential impact if these vaccines had been accessible even slightly earlier.
She posits, “While they were produced faster than ever before in history, we could have preserved more lives and hastened the return to normalcy.”
The aspiration is that the insights gleaned from the Covid crisis will fortify readiness for forthcoming challenges.
Prof Harries underscores the imperative of proactive measures to preclude pandemics, transcending reactive responses and striving to arrest nascent outbreaks in their infancy.