In October 2023 the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced £25 million funding to three projects “designed to build our understanding of viruses” and how the immune system “reacts to different challenges”. Each project is intended to “inform the development of new, broader, and longer-lasting vaccines”. The funding falls under the Tackling Infections theme, one of five strategic themes. Tackling Infections has a budget of approximately £75 million until 2029 and seeks to prepare for future disease epidemics and stop the ‘slow motion pandemic’ of antimicrobial resistance.
Next generation vaccines
Maria Caulfield, the UK’s Minister for Vaccines and Public Health, believes that the projects will “enhance our understanding of infectious diseases” and “how our bodies react to equip us with the best tools to fight back”.
“As we continue to learn from the pandemic, creating the next generation of vaccines is crucial to protecting the most vulnerable and managing future threats.”
Dr Stephen Oakeshott, Medical Research Council Head of Infections and Immunity stated that the UKRI’s Tackling Infections programme will “harness research and innovation”.
“These UK wide partnerships will build on the research legacy from our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the UK’s leading experts to deepen our understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 might evolve and how we might protect against future variants.”
Dr Oakeshott is “committed” to helping the country better prepare for future pandemics and suggests that these projects will “provide important insight for public health” and “illuminate a pathway for next-generation vaccine development”.
The G2P2 virology consortium
Led by Professor Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London, the G2P2 consortium will “keep pace” with the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 variants. Using molecular virology, the project will track how genetic changes in the virus affect phenotypes including:
- The severity of illness
- The range of cell types infected
- Capability for evading the immune system
- Mode of transmission
“This will provide an evidence base to inform whether updates to current vaccines are needed and inform changes in policy based on increased risk to population health.”
Immune Memory and Mechanisms of Protection from Vaccines (IMMPROVE) will be led by Professor Teresa Lambe OBE and Professor Paul Klenerman from the University of Oxford. The Pandemic Sciences Institute at Oxford states that this collaboration will “enhance protection against several current and future respiratory pathogens”. It aims to understand how “through vaccination, the training and preservation of protective immune responses can keep us safe from disease”.
This collaboration comprises “leading academic and industrial partners” and will establish “global networks of trained personnel with the scientific tools to better prepare the world for the next pandemic”. Academic research partners include Babraham Institute, University of Cambridge, University of Birmingham, Imperial College London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University College London, University of Southampton, Sanger Institute, UKHSA, and the Royal Veterinary College.
Professor Teresa Lambe is “excited to work with the “world-leading team” on the programme.
“This research will help us better understand the processes by which vaccines lead to immune protection and how best to stimulate these.”
Professor Paul Klenerman reflected that the UK’s scientific community “rose to the challenge of the pandemic” and “brought many different groups together to collaborate in new networks”.
“This consortium continues the spirit of that collaboration to address some of the key remaining challenges, not just for COVID-19, but for vaccines in general.”
Evolutionarily smart vaccine strain selection for proactive vaccinology
This project will be led by Professor Derek Smith at the University of Cambridge and aims to “enhance the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine strain selection process” so that the UK population receives the “best possible protection”. The team will predict which variants might emerge in the future and measure immune responses to each evolution, enabling researchers to choose variants for use in vaccines.
“This continual monitoring and updating of the variant is necessary to protect those at high-risk of complications from COVID-19 and who will require further vaccinations against the evolving virus.”