UK Vaccine Taskforce
Steering a world-leading programme to secure COVID-19 vaccines in record time
In spring 2020, as a deadly coronavirus began to race around the globe, the UK Government established its Vaccine Taskforce (VTF). Its mission – to drive development and manufacture of life-saving vaccines and make them available to the public as quickly as possible. At this point, no-one knew if anyone would be able to develop a safe and effective vaccine – but if they were, the speed of roll-out would have a direct impact on the number of lives saved. The pressure to take decisions at pace and simultaneously retain control of the billions in public funding committed to the mission was intense. But by far the biggest pressure was to deliver.
We were an integral part of the team from the start – bringing to the mission deep expertise in complex programme delivery, business cases and life sciences, and experience of working across government. Over more than 18 months, we collaborated with the VTF to shape, lead and, ultimately, deliver a range of projects that enabled the UK to launch one of the first and fastest vaccine rollouts in the world. And we continue to be part of an extraordinary national effort that has saved tens of thousands of lives to date and will save many more in years to come.
- Supported the mobilisation of a world-leading vaccine delivery programme allowing over 80 per cent of UK adults to receive at least one dose within seven months of regulatory approval
- Applied commercial and business case expertise to enable the VTF to agree contracts for 400 million doses of seven different vaccines within six months of set-up
- Managed critical vaccines supply projects to deliver effective vaccines faster than ever before
- Supported the programme and helped secure funding for the onshoring of vaccine manufacture in the UK to save lives for years to come
A once-in-a-century global health emergency
The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed millions of lives and decimated economies around the world. Within weeks of the World Health Organisation declaring the pandemic, the UK Government recognised that vaccines would be the way out. So, as cases climbed towards their first peak in the UK, the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) set up the Vaccine Taskforce (VTF). Its challenge was to build a promising portfolio of vaccines and make them available to the public without delay.
The race is on
The urgency was immense. It typically takes up to ten years to develop new vaccines and bring them to market. But with the number of deaths associated with the virus rising inexorably – and the UK’s first lockdown sending the economy into reverse – there was no time to waste. The VTF need to dramatically accelerate every engagement with the companies racing to develop new vaccines, and with those gearing up to manufacture them.
The need for speed was intense, yet the requirement to retain control was equally powerful. Billions of pounds of public money were going into securing the vaccines. The VTF needed to be fastidious in demonstrating that rigorous governance was in place – all without slowing down decision-making. Any delay or hesitation would jeopardise the UK’s ambition to secure supplies of an effective vaccine as soon as one was available.
Against this backdrop, a raft of challenges lay in wait: from building the business cases to secure funding for procurement contracts, to developing strategy for supplying vaccines into the UK’s roll-out programme and dealing with the complexities of Brexit.
Bringing together the best of the best
To support this unprecedented national effort, the VTF brought together a team with all the relevant skills from a range of sectors. We quickly became integral to the programme’s development and – ultimately – its success.
With our wide experience of working across government to support the delivery of large-scale, complex and high-risk programmes, we could hit the ground running and work as an effective delivery partner from day one. We had already proved our ability to deliver at speed and under pressure with our work on the UK Ventilator Challenge.
We brought an extraordinary breadth of expertise to the challenge. Our wealth of experience in complex programme delivery and our pedigree in the health and life sciences sector were invaluable, giving us important credibility as we engaged with stakeholders across the vaccines space. Our experts in programme and project management and delivery played a key role in leading engagement on initiatives to deliver effective vaccines faster than ever before.
Designing the delivery plan from the outset
As the VTF’s work took off, vaccine developers around the world were launching hundreds of vaccine initiatives and new stakeholders were emerging by the week. We took this shifting landscape and worked closely with the VTF to establish a clear delivery plan and structure for the programme to manage the portfolio of the most promising candidate vaccines. We also worked jointly with the VTF to set up effective governance to enable rapid decision-making.
As experts in programme management, we knew how important it was to set the right tone at this early stage. As we supported and facilitated dialogue among senior government stakeholders and leading medical and public health experts, we ensured absolute transparency around risks – for example, that contracts for supply would come with no definite date for delivery.
Making the case for investment in candidate vaccines
At this point, no-one knew which initiatives would produce a viable vaccine – if at all. On the advice of VTF chair Kate Bingham, the Government had determined to back a wide range of projects. Our business case expertise was instrumental in informing the decisions on which ones and securing the necessary funding.
Working at pace, we translated scientific recommendations, clinical and commercial advantages, negotiating positions and funding requirements into a set of high-quality business cases. This was a shifting landscape. As different vaccines made their way through clinical trials, and safety and efficacy results came out, the risk profile for each potential vaccine shifted. Similarly, demand for individual vaccines surged or dropped away on the back of trial results.
In this high-stakes environment, the team compressed the usual timeline from business case development to ministerial approval from months into weeks, and then from days into hours. We didn’t miss a beat.
Leading engagement on four separate vaccine initiatives
By autumn 2020, we had already supported the VTF in agreeing contracts for 400 million doses of seven different vaccines for the UK. Working together, we established a portfolio approach to manage engagement on the different initiatives, going on to lead key projects with four vastly different vaccine developers, including world-leading biopharma Pfizer and biotechnology rising star Moderna.
As part of the VTF, we set up a joint working plan with each of the four companies and started to build the close relationships necessary to secure supplies for the UK. To compete effectively for developers’ attention, we emphasised the UK’s commitment to purchase and its plan to develop a world-leading vaccine roll-out
Preparing for roll-out
There was no approval for any of these vaccines yet, but we were already developing the plan to link up supply with the NHS roll-out. We worked in the interface between the VTF and the deployment community, and together adopted a whole system approach to align every part of the operation and get them ready to receive and use the vaccines.
We worked with the VTF to develop the critical path to ensure readiness, working backwards day by day from an as-yet undetermined launch date to 12 weeks out. Each vaccine required a different pathway, depending on its transport and storage requirements, and on where it was destined for use.
To ensure there would be no surprises, we assumed nothing. Together, we were proactive in unearthing and resolving challenges – from making sure the right arrangements were in place to import vaccines without barriers, to keeping pace with the vaccines’ evolving characteristics ahead of regulatory approval.
Meeting the moment as jabs approved
Then, in December 2020, a breakthrough. The UK’s medicines regulator gave approval for the Pfizer vaccine, based on revolutionary mRNA technology. The approval was for emergency use, a first for the UK.
The VTF hit ‘go’ on the plans to get vaccines to the roll-out programme. In less than a week, the first patient received a life-saving jab, and the UK became the first country in the world to administer the vaccine to the public.
In the weeks that followed, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MRHA) granted approval for vaccines from AstraZeneca and then Moderna. The process we jointly developed for getting supplies of the Pfizer vaccine out to the roll-out became the template for getting these and other future vaccines to the public.
Over the following months, our work proved critical in securing enough COVID-19 vaccines to support one of the fastest vaccines rollouts anywhere in world. By the end of June 2021, over 80 per cent of all UK adults had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. By the end of August, the programme was estimated to have saved over 100,000 lives and prevented over 143,000 hospital admissions in England alone.
Bringing vaccine manufacturing capacity offshore
As vaccines started to drive down deaths and hospitalisations in the UK, the challenge of preparing the UK to live with COVID-19 and handle future pandemics was coming into focus. Global competition for vaccines, including the materials involved in their manufacture and the consumables required to develop them safely, had been off the scale since the pandemic began. Brexit had also changed processes involved in importing. So, the next challenge for the VTF was to set up an onshoring manufacturing programme to increase domestic capability and improve supply chain resilience.
From the start, the programme comprised a wide range of initiatives. These included exploring opportunities to improve the UK’s capabilities to manufacture vaccines using four different production technologies. The programme also aimed to establish reliable supplies of raw ingredients, such as the lipids that introduce mRNA vaccines into human cells, and essential consumables, such as pipettes and tubing. Already, there were more than 30 investment proposals under review.
In an uncertain environment where strategy was still evolving, we supported the VTF to shape these many themes into a focused and coherent programme, define individual initiatives and introduce the controls and governance needed to move initiatives effectively through development. We also managed the proposal pipeline, supporting the evaluation of new proposals from potential partners.
By September 2021, we had already enabled the VTF to agree its first offer with a UK supplier to reserve essential capacity for the nation. With experts warning that the world is likely to experience further pandemics in the decades ahead, this is the first of many such agreements that will benefit the UK years from now. The UK’s enhanced vaccine manufacturing capacity and more resilient supply chains will strengthen the nation’s defence against the potentially devastating impact of new global health emergencies.