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MPs call to ‘protect and enhance’ R&D in wake of Covid-19


Select committees attribute success of vaccination to R&D investment, which should be “protected and enhanced”

A significant part of the success of the UK’s vaccination programme during the Covid-19 pandemic was due to the government’s early investment in R&D, which must be “protected and enhanced”, a report on lessons learned from the pandemic has concluded.

In their joint report, the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee describe the programme as “one of the most successful and effective initiatives in the history of UK science and public administration”.

“The strength of the UK’s scientific base—that is to say, the institutions, people and previous experience on which discoveries made depended—was foundational to the success of the programme,” the MPs said, adding that the government responded “decisively and with alacrity to the need for additional funding to advance projects with a potential to develop new vaccines”.

In particular, they highlight the success of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which they say was thanks to the government’s early investment in R&D.

“Investment and support through existing channels and forums such as the UK Vaccine Network have clearly paid off and illustrate the importance of looking ahead for future challenges,” they said.

The committees also praise the role of the UK regulatory authorities, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which they said responded with “authority and creativity”.

“Allowing the results of clinical trials to be submitted on a rolling basis made the UK the first Western country in the world to approve a vaccine,” the report said.

“The bold decision to extend the interval between doses allowed more people to be vaccinated more quickly and so protected the population.”

Moreover, they describe the establishment of the Vaccine Taskforce, which coordinated the government’s vaccine efforts, as a “masterstroke”.

“The decision to procure, at risk, and long in advance of regulatory approval, a broad portfolio of supplies of potential vaccines was bold and prescient, as was the commitment to order vaccines in quantities in excess of what was needed,” it said.

Future R&D investment

Looking to the future, the MPs said it was “essential” that support for, and investment in, the UK science base is “protected and enhanced”. This should include delivering the government’s commitment to invest £22 billion per year in R&D by 2024-25, they said.

“Science has saved the world from the even greater catastrophe of Covid-19 without the defence of vaccines,” the report said.

“The experience should alert us to the risk of unforeseen threats against which a world-class and experienced scientific capability is the best investment.”

They also recommend that the Vaccine Taskforce model be considered for delivering other government priorities and suggest that an assessment be made of the regulatory model used during the pandemic, so that it may be applied to other exceptional circumstances.

Commenting on the report, Doug Brown, chief executive of the British Society for Immunology, said the UK’s research base had made a “hugely positive contribution to hastening control of the pandemic”.

“These achievements were only possible due to substantial investment and strategic focus on life sciences research in the preceding years,” he said.

“We must learn from this experience to continue to invest in the UK’s science base and deliver on existing government commitments to increase spending on R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027.”

Self-congratulatory on the ‘success’ of the vaccine

Penny Ward, visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London, said the report is “self-congratulatory on the ‘success’ of the vaccine and of the foresight of the Vaccines Taskforce”, when the country has “failed to ensure sufficient uptake of the vaccination among younger adults and teenagers and some higher-risk communities—most notably those of African heritage—which is at least one possible reason for the continued circulation of infection resulting in more than 700 hospitalisations and 100 deaths daily, on average in the UK currently”.

Similarly, Simon Williams, senior lecturer at Swansea University, said: “Although the report rightly notes the early success of the UK’s vaccination rollout, amongst vulnerable groups in particular, it is not current to suggest that the UK has been one of the most successful, even in Europe […] We have been slow to offer the vaccine to children aged 12-15, and we have seen how high rates in this age group have been lately.”

And Marian Knight, professor of maternal and child population health at the University of Oxford, said: “There have been more deaths from Covid-19 in pregnancy in the third (Delta) wave of infection than in either previous wave, unlike most other population groups. This stems directly from very high levels of vaccine hesitancy among pregnant women, who were not included in vaccine trials until too late, resulting in a lack of safety data.

“Data on whether or not women were pregnant at the time of vaccination was not collected until several months into the vaccination programme,” she added. “We still have no robust data on the outcomes of pregnancy in vaccinated pregnant women to support other pregnant women when they are making their own choice about vaccination.

“Yet there is not a single mention of pregnant women and lessons learned in this report. They are, once again, a forgotten and overlooked group. If they are ignored in reports such as this, how can we ensure that the same mistakes are not made again in the future?”

Research Professional News has approached the House of Commons S&T committee for comment on the criticisms of their report.