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Business Maverick

Oxford University takes aim at future pandemic threats

Oxford University takes aim at future pandemic threats
The Clarendon building, right, stands next to the Shedonian theatre, both part of Oxford University, in Oxford, U.K., on Wednesday, 27 May 2020. (Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

The Pandemic Sciences Institute joins organisations such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization’s pandemic intelligence hub in a broader effort to respond to outbreaks and prevent them from exploding into global emergencies. 

The University of Oxford, one of the first to cross the finish line with a Covid-19 vaccine, is shifting its focus to health threats that could trigger the next pandemic.

Oxford’s Pandemic Sciences Institute, launched on Tuesday, aims to reduce the risks posed by infectious diseases by improving data collection, strengthening surveillance and helping to create vaccines and other countermeasures. Oxford said the organisation will seek to learn from the response to Covid and take advantage of the university’s research and global partnerships. But it will have to bring in additional funds to carry out its mission. 

“We need to fill the gaps, and we need to identify the bottlenecks and remove them,” Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford scientist who led the development of the Covid shot, said in an interview. “We want to capitalise on that and bring it together so that we don’t find ourselves with the same lack of preparedness we had in 2020.”

The institute, which hoped to attract more than £500-million (R9,88-billion) in investment when it was unveiled last year, has so far raised about £100-million, she said. Oxford’s initiative joins organisations such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization’s pandemic intelligence hub in a broader effort to respond to outbreaks and prevent them from exploding into global emergencies. 

One priority is overcoming a lack of larger-scale vaccine manufacturing capacity globally, Gilbert said. Oxford’s Covid vaccine partner, AstraZeneca Plc, transferred technology to multiple sites around the world, but that still takes time, she said. In the future, every continent, especially Africa, and every region will need to be able to produce big quantities of vaccines, she said. 

“If you look back, it was absolutely phenomenal and it was really fast, but it would have been so much better if we didn’t have to do that after we knew about the outbreak,” she said. “We should have that network maintained so that if we had to do this again for a different disease we could immediately activate that manufacturing network and not have the delays that we had in 2020.”

The Oxford group is led by Peter Horby, with Miles Carroll, Michael Parker and other professors among other members of the team. The goal is to move “as fast as possible, but there’s still a way to go to complete our fund-raising”, Gilbert said. BM

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