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How the Vaccine Innovation Pathway is advancing vaccine clinical trials

Dr. Maria Koufali, Head of the UK Vaccine
Innovation Pathway

Published: 26 February 2024

The UK has emerged as a global leader in supporting vaccine clinical trials. NIHR’s Dr Maria Koufali, Head of the UK Vaccine Innovation Pathway, outlines how we are expanding the UK's vaccine research potential to support the development of future vaccines.

Pandemic acceleration: a turning point for vaccine development

Traditionally, vaccine development has taken a decade or more. This changed when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The UK displayed a remarkable ability to speed up this process. It underscored the UK's unparalleled capacity to conduct vaccine clinical trials swiftly and on a large scale. This paradigm shift presents an opportunity for us as a global leader in the field. We can address pre-existing health concerns and lead on future pandemic preparedness. This includes the development of innovative treatments for cancer and rare diseases.

Building on success: The UK Vaccine Innovation Pathway

Our national networks enabled us to advance vaccine development during the pandemic, as exemplified by the Oxford vaccine trial. This laid the foundation for the UK Vaccine Innovation Pathway. It is a strategic initiative that brings together the NIHR and devolved nation infrastructure. This includes:

  • NIHR Clinical Research Network
  • UK Clinical Research Facilities Network (UKCRF)
  • Experimental Cancer Medicine Network (ECMCN)
  • NHS Research Scotland
  • Health and Care Research Wales
  • Northern Ireland Clinical Research Network

The UK Vaccine Innovation Pathway is the UK’s first clinical trial delivery accelerator. The Accelerator was originally referred to as a Clinical Trial Activity Network (CTAN) in Lord O’Shaughnessy’s independent review into commercial clinical trials in the UK, and the Government response to the review. Through this initiative, we aim to build on past achievements and introduce new strategies for the rapid and efficient delivery of vaccine clinical trials. The goal is to position the UK as the preferred destination for trials spanning:

  • traditional vaccines
  • mRNA vaccines
  • personalised neoantigen cancer therapies

Expanding the investigator community and site capabilities

To support the growth of vaccine clinical trials in the UK, independent vaccine forums have been established for infectious diseases and cancer vaccines. These forums build communities of infection and cancer vaccine research experts. They provide early input and advice on vaccine protocols and pipelines. This helps ensure vaccine trials coming to the UK are a good fit for our health and care system.

We use a data-driven approach to strategically distribute these studies across the UK. It addresses issues such as diversity, age, and socioeconomic factors to ensure that participants are representative of the trial’s target population. Data is drawn from site surveys and through our national capacity and capability assessments.

To ensure that we can continue to meet increasing capacity, we are actively growing the community of vaccine trial investigators. The NIHR Associate Principal Investigator Scheme provides mentorship and support for investigators. This gives them the experience to become Principal Investigators. We are also leveraging the lessons learned during the pandemic. This includes sharing the workforce across regions to further enhance capacity, share expertise, and avoid resource wastage.

Inclusive Vaccine Clinical Trial Participation

Simultaneously, efforts are underway to engage with the UK population. We want to engage healthy volunteers and patients to take part in vaccine clinical trials and other studies. This will help boost inclusivity and encourage individuals who may not have taken part in clinical trials. We are also:

Together, our efforts will facilitate connections between researchers and potential study participants leading to faster sign-up and consent.

The UK as a global leader in vaccine clinical trial delivery

I believe the UK's Vaccine Innovation Pathway stands as a testament to the nation's commitment to advancing vaccine research. It is already fostering inclusivity in clinical trials, and sees us proactively prepare for future health challenges on a global scale. I would urge companies considering running vaccine clinical trials to look to the UK. Here they will find a collaborative and efficient environment underpinned by these strategic initiatives that are actively redefining the future of vaccine development.

Learn more about how we are building capacity and capability in vaccine clinical trial delivery.

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