Porton Down, one of the most secretive research centers in the United Kingdom, is clear about its goal: to stop the next pandemic.
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By going through stringent security checks at this remote site, I was able to gain access to its scientists.
Porton Down is headquartered in the new Vaccine Evaluation and Development Center.
Focused on responding to COVID-19, their work aims to save lives and minimize the need for lockdowns when a new disease emerges.
“Of course Covid is not something isolated,” says Prof Jenny Harris, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which runs these labs.
“We say that this was the largest public health incident in a century, but I don’t think any of us think that it will be another hundred years before the next incident,” he adds.
He says the combination of climate change, urbanization and people living near animals – sources of new diseases that can be transmitted to humans – is causing a “growing wave of risk.”
Porton Down, nestled in the quiet Wiltshire countryside near Salisbury, is one of the few places in the world equipped to research some of the most vexing viruses and bacteria imaginable.
Freezers here contain disease-causing agents such as Ebola.
One of the neighboring buildings houses the Department of Defense’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, where the use of the nerve agent Novichok was confirmed in the Salisbury poisoning of a Russian double spy and his daughter in 2018.
The vaccine labs, housed in dark green buildings, were hastily built as part of the emergency covid response.
However, as the pandemic ended, the emphasis changed.
The new Vaccine Research Center focuses on three types of threats:
The goal is to collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry, scientists and physicians to assist in all phases of vaccine development.
Porton Down scientists are working on the first vaccine against Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, which is transmitted by ticks and kills about a third of infected people.
The disease has been identified in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia; and may spread further with climate change.
At the other end of the process, the effectiveness of the vaccine is evaluated. It was the scientists at the site who discovered that the omicron variant could bypass part of the protection of covid vaccines.
And new variants of Covid are still being studied, growing them in the lab, exposing them to antibodies taken from blood samples, and testing to see if they can still infect.
Meanwhile, machines informally named Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, BB8, and Palpatine are on the front lines, monitoring the threat of the world’s largest bird flu outbreak.
The H5N1 virus has devastated bird populations and routine testing of working birds has revealed the first asymptomatic human cases in the UK.
The difference is that before the pandemic, the teams here could only analyze 100 samples a week, and now their number exceeds 3,000.
The work on this site is focused on the “100 Day Mission”, an extremely ambitious strategy to develop a vaccine against a new threat in just 100 days.
Development and testing of new vaccines has historically taken a decade. The unique circumstances of the pandemic allowed the production of coronavirus vaccines in one year, with the first doses arriving in December 2020.
These vaccines are estimated to have saved more than 14 million lives in the first 12 months of their use.
“Imagine if they were available a little earlier,” said Professor Isabelle Oliver, UKHSA Chief Scientist.
“They started to materialize faster than at any time before in history, although we could have saved many more lives and returned to normal much faster.”
There is hope here that the lessons of the covid pandemic will allow us to be better prepared next time.
Professor Harris explains that in the past we simply reacted to events, but in the future we must be at the forefront and “try to stop” any pandemic before it starts.
And if a new disease emerges, he adds, we must “stop it in its tracks” at a very early stage.
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