In April 2020, as the University was planning the first clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccine, some began to wonder how to supply the vaccine to the world - if it worked. A rather worried colleague said to me, ‘But vaccine manufacturing is not really what we do, is it?’.
They were right in some ways: the University of Oxford is not a vaccine manufacturing company. A small group of University scientists had, however, been working on the problem for quite some time.
My team in the Jenner Institute had started research on manufacturing a few years earlier, to solve challenges around making an adenovirus-based rabies vaccine. The method we developed was designed to be very simple (so it could be done by many manufacturing facilities) and so it would work for other adenovirus-based vaccines (and might be useful for a new disease). Unfortunately, it had a major limitation: even if it were scaled-up massively, this method would not make enough vaccine to tackle a pandemic.
So, in early February 2020, it was a matter of concern that, although Oxford had the capacity to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, and clinical trials might take only a few months, manufacturing ‘at pandemic scale’ would take much longer. The technology simply was not in place.