The UK BioIndustry Association (BIA) is a trade association focused on promoting the UK life sciences sector as a global hub for leading-edge research and commercialization, enabling the UK’s world-leading research base to deliver healthcare solutions that can truly make a difference to people’s lives.
Steve Bates – BIA’s 12-year CEO, chair of the International Council of Biotech Associations, and Board member of Europabio since 2015, champions BIA’s initiatives. He stands as the industry representative for UK life sciences for both the government and the media, and fosters sector collaborations between research charities and academic institutions.
Before BIA, Steve worked for Genzyme, as an advisor to the UK Government of Tony Blair and was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to innovation in 2017.
Recently, Rich Soll and the WuXi AppTec Content Team sat down with Steve to discuss the work of the BIA, their role in the fight against COVID-19, the UK biotech COVID-19 response, and his insights into the need for collaborative pandemic preparations.
WuXi AppTec: Prior to COVID-19, what did you see as the biggest challenge for the life science industry in the U.K.?
Steve Bates: As the third global cluster of life science companies in the world, UK efforts have been centered on global finance in Asia - China and Hong Kong in particular. The biggest challenge was to make sure that U.K. science could grow at the scale and pace that we see in the real hot spots, like Boston.
WuXi AppTec: What is a distinctive or unique aspect of BIA?
Steve Bates: It’s the British approach to understated excellence. Through very deep, collaborative scientific engagement, we keep calm and carry on. The UK ecosystem is well networked, with many of the major global Pharma companies having R&D presence in the UK community. We’re fortunate to have a couple of the global players based in the United Kingdom.. We have links to our friends in Boston and there are many people working with colleagues in mainland Europe and Asia. The uniqueness is that for many people in biotech, their experiences within the UK ecosystem are part of their education. We find many of our friends in China have spent time in UK institutions.
Many of the global players look to partner or innovate here in the United Kingdom. They do this through, direct participation, venture investment, or by supplying their presence in London through organizations like J&J Innovation. Many companies in the UK have strong linkages back to their headquarters in America or other countries. Traditionally, the U.K. strengths have been in discovery science and early development, leading to collaboration with most of the major players. For example, Eli Lilly and Company recently announced a collaboration with Oxford-based Sitryx to develop immunometabolic medicines. Another example of U.K. bred innovation is Cambridge Antibody Technology, whose platform formed the core of therapeutics from Medimmune, which in turn was acquired by AstraZeneca.
WuXi AppTec: What initiatives did BIA undertake in response to the pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus which led to COVID-19?
Steve Bates: I have been leading and coordinating efforts against the pandemic on behalf of the BIA, and would like to provide you with an overview of BIA’s contributions as of April 3, 2020.
Due to the way we organize our membership, we have a very strong expertise in antibodies. This stems from our experience in understanding immune responses, which is now applied to the discovery aspects of COVID-19. Similarly, our past experiences in the use of antibodies as therapeutics and in prophylactic was embedded within Dr. Jane Osborne’s group who previously headed Medimmune U.K.
We have been bringing various sectors and communities together. For example, in the UK there is a public sector effort around genomics, driven in part through collaborative access to the Wellcome Sanger Institute where genomic information is collected and analyzed. We’re gaining deeper understandings and insights which we hope will translate to yet more effective therapies in the battle against COVID-19.
We are also working on a vaccine for COVID-19. Although no vaccine is currently available, this is a highly active space with around 40 vaccines or vaccine approaches in development around the world. In the UK there are two major groups. The Oxford vaccine is based on a chimpanzee adenovirus, which is modified to produce proteins in human cells that are also produced by COVID-19. It is hoped the vaccine will teach the body’s immune system to then recognize the protein and help stop the coronavirus from entering the cell. Clinical trials have just started.
WuXi AppTec: Can you elaborate on the UK pipeline? I know it is very robust, particularly in biologics like therapies and vaccines.
Steve Bates: Yes, that is correct, but there is more. One novel approach from Imperial College bears similarity to Moderna’s technology platform, targeting mRNA approaches to vaccine development.
Our contribution has been to link a manufacturing and scale-up community to these efforts. If anything promising should arise from these or similar approaches from other groups around the world, we’re already thinking through and having in place the stages that are needed for the scale-up and manufacture.
Our colleagues at WuXi AppTec are key players regarding this process in China. I believe we will be looking to partner and share as we go along, if any of these become of value outside the United Kingdom.
I believe we have a really interesting group in antibody development. They are looking at vaccines in novel and mRNA approaches, as well as a promising adenovirus approach. This will help to display a more established route.
We’re also keen to learning other approaches around the world. We’ve seen interesting approaches in Singapore on this, and other places which seem to be ahead of us, including China – which has been through COVID-19 for many more months than we have experienced thus far.
WuXi AppTec: It’s terrific to see cutting-edge science on this translational path. What are the lessons learned thus far with respect to COVID-19?
Steve Bates: I think it’s the extreme altruism and the coming together to face the challenge that we’ve seen from the community. People have put aside commercial differences, they have rapidly come together, and they are deeply interested in working at pace. I think the other aspect is that it is interesting how fast advancements are moving.
WuXi AppTec: How important is collaboration?
Steve Bates: We believe that science is a team sport. We are used to working collaboratively with partners from around the world. We’re delighted to have been able to benefit from the Chinese experience of putting the genome into the public domain, and people have been working on that in the U.K.
We’re always keen to collaborate with partnership in the US, and I think there is an opportunity through COVID-19 for other groups across the world to embrace a collaborative mindset. We’re seeing that happen at a pace and scale in the U.K. community and beyond, even at a time when it is difficult to do this, especially without travel.
WuXi AppTec: What do you see as the biggest need within COVID-19, is it in the diagnostics area, in therapeutics or vaccines?
Steve Bates: I think we see that we’re going to need a combination of approaches. The immediate need is three fold: (1) social distancing to enable the health service, which has stepped up tremendously to take the increase in patients; (2) the need to increase testing, which is based on swab testing for active virus; (3) the ability to do clinical trial work on COVID-19.
We still need an effective daily template to be rolled out in the U.K., which allows us to be keen to stay up with global developments; I would really like to track and visualize these changes on an almost day by day basis. Mapping out the entire process across vaccine development, diagnostics and therapies will be essential in our communication to the community.
There is at least one other emerging area of importance in regards to the COVID-19 infection: antibody testing from recovered patients or patients who were resistant. The insights learned here may be beneficial to developing more reliable and faster diagnostics, therapies, and effective vaccines. This could represent an important part of the armory against the virus.
WuXi AppTec: Can we better prepared for the next pandemic?
Steve Bates: There will be a lot of fundamental rethinks in the UK and Europe. These will include much closer workings between digital health and diagnostics. We will see the healthcare system move to much more preventative measures and screenings.
Additionally, all fundamental underpinnings of our healthcare system must be diligently assessed and improved upon where necessary. I consider it a bright future. By collaborating internationally, we will continue to play a significant global role.