Would setting up a national network of ‘health clusters’ enable the life science and pharmaceutical sectors to best develop and manufacture vaccines, diagnostic tests and equipment? Richard Williams explains the why, where who and how.
In a time of deep uncertainty for communities and businesses across the UK, the unprecedented and collaborative government and industry response to the Coronavirus pandemic needs to be recognised.
It’s heart-warming to see so many people and organisations stepping up to join in the national effort to deliver vital supplies in local communities and manufacture much-needed ventilators.
In recent weeks however, we have seen a strain on certain parts of the supply chain, including shipments of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS staff and those working in care homes, and much debate around the most effective path to choose to develop and administer a vaccine to COVID-19.
Indeed, government has launched a new vaccine taskforce to find the best way forward. This is in addition to the £250m already pledged to develop a vaccine in the UK.
While the situation continues to develop and although we will sadly experience more dark days before the end of this crisis, minds naturally turn to the future.
How can the life science and pharmaceutical sectors best develop and manufacture the vaccines, diagnostic tests and equipment we need now and in future? How can they set themselves up to be ready to rapidly develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines, treatments and technology for a future pandemic?
The development of ‘health clusters’ – grouping together key academic, health and industrial organisations in strategic locations – could be one solution.
Mirroring the approach of net zero industrial clusters which have been introduced as part of government’s Industrial Strategy, this would involve locating specialist laboratories and manufacturing facilities around existing centres of expertise, such as teaching hospitals and universities.
Health clusters could be developed in specific, strategic UK locations and would be constantly manufacturing vaccines, prescription and non-prescription medicines and equipment for whatever situation might require it.
Importantly, they would be able to scale up quickly should a future pandemic affect the UK and be able to draw upon the expertise already in place.
Health clusters would also help to attract major pharmaceutical and life sciences organisations looking to relocate parts of their critical supply chains to the UK.
Where might these health clusters be situated? Cambridge is already home to a world-renowned teaching hospital, a biomedical research centre and AstraZeneca’s global headquarters, while the UK’s Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovations Centre is in Oxford.
The West Midlands is home to research establishments and a diverse manufacturing base, so too the North-West and South Wales with their concentration of research facilities, manufacturing and industry.
All these locations could provide the necessary access to a skilled workforce, higher education and healthcare expertise and suitable transport networks and logistical capability to distribute medicines and equipment quickly when required.
This last point is particularly important. Establishing health clusters in various locations around the country would provide resilience if one area were particularly badly hit by a future pandemic and the workforce infected.
It would also support government’s levelling-up agenda – unleashing the potential of the emerging expertise and businesses in these areas. Moreover, it offers an ideal opportunity to establish the UK as a centre for high-value vaccine and health technology manufacturing.
While conceivable, delivering such clusters would require strategic thinking and cross-sector collaboration. How can we get the right organisations involved, including companies such as Thermo Fisher Scientific which is manufacturing Covid-19 diagnostic kits?
Indeed, how can we get large-scale vaccine manufacturing expertise to relocate back to the UK from countries such as the Netherlands?
The most important thing right now is to focus on overcoming Covid-19; however it’s also critical that the UK thinks further ahead.
Developing health clusters to ensure resilience to future pandemics would require a well-thought-out strategy from both national government, local authorities and the private sector, and there really is no time to lose in considering how to take this approach forward.
And, as with net zero industrial clusters, planners and engineers have a key part to play.
Richard Williams is regional director for industry at engineering and professional services consultancy WSP.
*All images courtesy of Shutterstock