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Overview

Read the conference report summarising the event (PDF).

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Over two days, the meeting explored the basic science, vaccine efforts and diagnostic logistics, treatment and recovery from long and acute COVID, as well as the opportunities gained for the life sciences, and how this can be taken forward for future preparedness.

The event programme is available online (PDF).

About the conference series

The conference is part of the Royal Society's Transforming our future conferences in the life sciences, supported by AstraZeneca. These  meetings are unique, high-level events that address the scientific and technical challenges of the next decade. Each conference features cutting edge science from industry and academia and brings together leading experts from the scientific community, including regulatory, charity and funding bodies.

Organisers

Schedule

09:00-09:05
Opening remarks

Speakers


Chair

09:05-09:40
Overview of the pandemic and the science

Speakers

09:40-10:15
Sensing Pandemics: Pathogens, People, Places and Possibilities

Abstract

In this presentation I will explore patterns of disease and seek to explain why the pandemic appeared to wax and wane at different times in various parts of the world.  I will propose principles and steps that could be applied for mitigation in future.

Speakers

10:15-10:45
Combating the Pandemic: How a novel approach helps combat the COVID-19 pandemic

Abstract

With almost six million suspected deaths worldwide and counting, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the deadliest disasters in human history. Once its global spread and destructive force became clear at the beginning of 2020, scientists around the world raced to develop a vaccine to stop the novel virus in its tracks and save millions of lives. Özlem Türeci, Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech, is a physician, immunologist, and cancer researcher with translational and clinical experience. Türeci has led the discovery of cancer antigens, the advancement of mRNA-based individualized and off-the-shelf vaccine candidates and other types of immunotherapies which are currently in clinical development. Along with her team at BioNTech, she developed one of the first mRNA-vaccines for effectively preventing COVID-19 infections and will share how to translate science into industrial production and how to turn these innovations into medication by showing how her team made the “mRNA Toolbox” ready for use in industry and the market.

Speakers


Chair

11:15-11:40
The origin and ongoing evolution of COVID-19

Abstract

I will outline our current understanding of the key events in the origin and emergence of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) at the end of 2019. Major topics of discussion will be possible zoonotic reservoirs for SARS-CoV-2, the diversity of SARS-CoV-2-like viruses in bats and other mammals, the signatures of origin written into genome sequences, and the possible role played by the Huanan market in Wuhan in the initial animal-to-human cross-species transmission event. I will show that there is increasing evidence that the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 strongly resembles of that of SARS-CoV some 17 years earlier. I will also address whether it is possible that SARS-CoV-2 emerged as a result of ‘lab leak’ from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and show that there is currently no scientifically robust evidence in support of that theory. I will also briefly consider possible scenarios for the future evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and conclude by considering the steps that can be taken to stop such a catastrophic pandemic event ever happening again.

Speakers

11:40-12:05
SARS-CoV-2 Variants. Evolution in real time.

Abstract

Since its emergence in late 2019 as a novel coronavirus that can infect and transmit amongst humans, SARS-CoV-2 has continued to circulate, causing respiratory infections around the world. Although in the first months the virus appeared to be relatively evolutionarily static, subsequent waves of the pandemic during the following 2 years have been attributed to variants, that presumably represent stages of further adaptation to the new human host. The SARS-CoV-2 variants now represent a natural set of similar viruses with well described genetic features that determine different phenotypes including increased transmissibility, altered severity, and antigenic escape.  By performing careful comparative virology combined with reverse genetics, we aim to understand the molecular basis of altered phenotype in order to better risk assess novel variants as they emerge. 

A key question is whether further human adaptation, including altered cell tropism, increased airborne transmission and antigenic escape result in reduced severity for newly emergent variants such as Omicron, and whether these changes are intrinsically linked or can evolve separately. Understanding the genetic relationships between these key traits will help assess the possibility that further severe variants that escape current vaccines might emerge.  

Speakers

12:05-12:30
Immune responses in COVID-19 and other coronavirus infections

Abstract

As we have learned during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the human immune response to SARS-CoV-2 has both pathogenic and protective aspects. The pandemic has been characterized by severe disease in a subset of infected individuals, many of whom have co-morbidities. Many COVID-19 studies have indicated a major role for a dysregulated host immune response in this severe disease. Specifically, virus clearance and interferon responses are often delayed in patients with worse outcomes, and interferon and pro-inflammatory cytokine levels are elevated at later times. Some patients with severe disease develop poor interferon and T cell responses, which also contribute to severe disease. On the other hand, well-orchestrated innate and adaptive immune responses are critical for virus clearance and recovery from COVID-19. Most of these latter studies have focused on anti-virus antibody responses after the natural infection or vaccination. The anti-virus T cell response is also important but is less well characterized. Many of these observations were previously made in the context of severe infections caused by SARS-CoV or the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome)-coronavirus and in laboratory animals infected with human or other coronaviruses. Here, we focus on the host response to SARS-CoV-2 and to other human and animal coronaviruses, with particular focus on common aspects of immunopathogenesis and protective immune responses.  

Speakers


Chair

13:30-13:50
Lessons learnt from the Vaccine Task Force

Abstract

Kate will discuss the steps and challenges facing the VTF during 2020 and suggest how lessons can be learnt for managing future pandemics. She will also touch on exciting new opportunities post the pandemic.

Speakers

13:50-14:10
Development and testing of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine: a vaccine for the world

Abstract

In early January 2020 the genomic sequence of SARS-Cov2 was shared around the world providing the raw data needed to start making a vaccine, before anyone realised that we were on the verge of a pandemic. Over the next couple of months, intense activity allowed the critical steps in manufacturing and animal testing to be completed so that pivotal clinical trials could be initiated on 23rd April at unprecedented scale and speed. Initial trials showed the Oxford vaccine, using the Chadox1 non-replicating viral vector platform with a spike protein transgene, induced strong antibody and T cell responses across all ages, paving the way for phase III trials. Just over a month later, with a herculean effort, researchers in the NHS, South Africa and Brazil ran trials of over 24,000 volunteers to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. A partnership with AstraZeneca provided the human resources to stitch together global regulatory approvals and enable global manufacturing to produce the vaccine for the world, not-for-profit. Licensure in the UK at the end of December 2020, just 8 months after the first dose was given in clinical trials was followed by roll out in the UK from the 4th January, and following approvals by WHO in February 2021, the vaccine provided the main supply to Covax during the first half of 2021. Since then studies have established the profound impact of the vaccine in preventing severe disease, and saving lives, and confirmed its global role as a booster vaccine. There are many lessons to learn from the pandemic but most important is that the research on coronavirus vaccines that happened before the pandemic made it possible to respond in the pandemic. It could so easily have been different.

Speakers

14:10-14:35
Navigating a global response to the pandemic to develop a vaccine made for the world

Abstract

Dr Tonya Villafana, Global Franchise Head, Vaccines and Immune Therapies

The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded a global, united response, not just from the scientific community but also from industry, organisations, governments and every single person around the globe.

Since early 2020 when the true scale of the crisis became clear, AstraZeneca has committed to help defeat COVID-19 by harnessing and sharing our scientific knowledge and expertise to advance and accelerate the development of potential medicines to prevent or treat the virus.

Recognising the urgent need for a vaccine to defeat the virus, we joined forces with the University of Oxford, bringing together its world-class expertise in vaccinology with our global development and manufacturing capabilities. We accelerated clinical development and rapidly mobilised partnerships and a global supply chain that has supported a broad, timely and equitable supply of a safe and effective vaccine around the world, and at no profit during the pandemic. 

So far, AstraZeneca together with its partners has delivered more than 2.5 billion vaccine doses to over 170 countries across every continent, with approximately two-thirds of these doses have been delivered to low- and lower-middle income countries.

Speakers

14:35-15:00
Q&A Panel

Chair

15:30-15:55
The Team Science of Testing

Abstract

The pandemic catalysed the largest diagnostics project in UK history and created the highest per capita testing capacity of any large country. The Lighthouse programme augmented NHS resources through a task-and-finish industrio-NHS-academic collaboration that delivered quality science at scale. The industry consortium on rapid testing delivered non-competitive collaborations that increased UK’s manufacturing capacity by one hundred-fold in 6 months.

These rapid outcomes – at a time of massive uncertainty and scrutiny – showed the UK healthcare community’s mettle in passion, precision and productivity. It developed and used science in quality control, data analytics, new test development, materials application and manufacturing practice. It did this through the power of people with a purpose. Many of these benefits will flow into our own healthcare system for decades to come, and allow the UK to remain on the world stage as a next generation diagnostics innovator.

Speakers

15:55-16:20
Deriving actionable information from SARS-CoV-2 genomes

Abstract

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, genome sequencing has provided vital insights into the biology and evolution of the causal virus, SARS-CoV-2. Within a month of the first reported cases, genome data had informed the rapid development of vaccines and continues to inform vaccine redesign. Sequencing has detected the emergence and spread of Variants of Concern, and underpins studies of variant transmissibility, immune evasion, and disease severity. In this talk, I will describe how SARS-CoV-2 sequencing has led to numerous instances of public health action.

Speakers

16:20-16:45
Learning from the pandemic on diagnostic testing for asymptomatic and early disease

Abstract

AstraZeneca’s Precision Medicine capability uses innovative diagnostic tests to match medicines to patients most likely to respond. During the pandemic we deployed diagnostic testing for asymptomatic employees to maintain the supply of medicines to patients. This talk will describe key learnings from Sars-Cov-2 diagnostic testing that can be applied to asymptomatic disease and to the early detection of cancer. The combination of early detection and treatment in life threatening diseases could help to improve response rates and potentially lead to cure.

Speakers

16:45-17:10
Science into policy and practice for COVID-19

Speakers


Chair

09:30-09:45
Long Covid: A long lasting legacy of the pandemic?

Abstract

Long COVID covers a multitude of persistent symptoms and conditions which follow on from acute COVID-19, whether severe or mild. The most recent report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that 1.5 million people (2.4% of the UK population) were experiencing self-reported long COVID as of 31st January 2022, of which 45% had symptoms for longer than a year. The middle-aged adult population is most affected, particularly females. Reports from employers suggest a quarter put long COVID in the top three reasons for long term sickness absence. Similarly, there has been a 20% increase in applications for Personal Independence Payments in the last year.  

Long COVID affects approximately 2% of children and young people following acute COVID-19, impacting their education, future earning potential and resulting in parental work absence. The economic impact of long-term sickness among the UK working population due to long COVID remains unclear but is likely substantial. Why has long COVID not been considered when deciding public health measures to mitigate spread of SARS-COV2? The long-term morbidity and disability of the UK population must be given due consideration, it will be a long-lasting legacy of the pandemic.

Speakers

09:45-10:10
Immune pathogenesis and therapeutics for COVID.

Abstract

In March 2020, we were faced with an unknown disease caused by a virus which was spreading at a rapid speed. This talk describes the combined power of clinical findings, immunology research and the UK's swift testing  of new drugs during those early months and then years of the pandemic. I will focus on how we used nascent immune understanding to support the key early phase therapeutic trials; and the summarise current understanding of the immune pathogenesis of severe COVID.

Speakers

10:10-10:35
Molnupiravir for the treatment of COVID-19

Abstract

Molnupiravir (MOV) is an orally administered prodrug of the nucleoside analog, N4-hydroxycytidine (NHC).  NHC broadly inhibits the replication of RNA viruses by inducing viral error catastrophe – the introduction of errors into viral genomes beyond a threshold where replication is possible.  NHC is active across all known SARS-CoV-2 variants, has a high barrier to the development of drug resistance, is well tolerated, and easy to administer. MOV is currently used for the treatment of COVID-19 in patients with mild to moderate disease who are at risk of disease progression.  An overview of its profile and potential for use in other indications will be provided.

Speakers

10:35-11:00
Fighting COVID-19 with broadly neutralizing antibodies

Abstract

Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) have revolutionized the treatment of several human diseases, including cancer, autoimmunity and inflammatory conditions and represent a new frontier for the treatment of infectious diseases. In the last twenty years, innovative methods have allowed the rapid isolation of antibodies from convalescent subjects, humanized mice or in vitro libraries and have proven that swift isolation of mAbs is a rapid and effective countermeasure to emerging pathogens. During the past two years, an unprecedented wave of monoclonal antibodies has been developed to fight COVID-19. Here, we provide an overview of the preclinical and clinical development of the SARS-CoV-2 broadly neutralizing antibodies including their antiviral and immunological mechanisms of action, and resistance to circulating variants. 

Speakers

11:00-11:25
COVID-19 therapeutics: revelations and revolutions

Abstract

COVID-19 has turbo-charged drug development, achieving in months what had previously taken years. The incredible impact of lightning speed computational biology, genomics, drug development, mega-platform trials and data linkage should revolutionise our expectations for the future. 

Speakers


Chair

11:50-12:10
Choosing drugs for UK COVID-19 treatment trials

Abstract

In 2020, the UK government funded a portfolio of platform trials to develop new treatments for COVID-19. A key feature was the independent prioritization of candidate drugs with central coordination to prevent duplication, accelerating recruitment to deliver definitive trial results. A similar approach could be used for non-communicable diseases where treatment advances have been limited.

Speakers

12:10-12:25
Siemens/VCUK. Leadership, technology and agile thinking in response to COVID-19

Abstract

In March 2020, the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium contracted with UK government to urgently manufacture 20,000 ventilators for the NHS. The challenge : to re-purpose an existing technology from Penlon, gain MHRA approval and build multiple factories for sub and final assembly to manufacture mechanical ventilators at scale and save lives. 

The success of the programme was dependent upon on agile leadership, the removal of the normal barriers to progress and the innovative use of technology. The presentation by Brian Holliday will feature an insight to the digital design of the sub assembly lines for the absorber breather and flow valve components of the ES02 in conjunction with Airbus, the training of volunteer operators through digital tools and an innovative hackathon to resolve a significant manufacturing calibration challenge.

Speakers

12:25-12:40
Machine learning for pandemic response and societal resilience

Abstract

Machine learning (ML) is increasing its positive impact across society and being effectively used to support COVID-19 response in many ways. We will describe how scientific collaborations are exploring the use of ML for COVID-19 diagnosis, patient triage and pandemic modelling. We will then discuss the opportunities for how ML can be used to help society be more resilient today and in the future.

Speakers

12:40-12:55
Sharing data and information on Covid-19 and other emergencies

Abstract

This presentation is a short overview of the challenges and successes of sharing data and information during the COVID pandemic, and during previous emergencies that I have been involved with, especially pandemics of influenza, Ebola and Zika viruses. The talk has four parts: (1) objectives of data sharing for science and policy; (2) incentives for, and barriers to, data sharing; (3) technical challenges and how to overcome them, commenting selectively on data sources, platforms, quality, analysis, standards, ethics, regulations and new technologies; and (4), in view of (1-3), some proposals for data sharing in anticipation of future emergences.

Speakers


Chair

14:30-14:35
My role as an Apprentice during the manufacture of the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine.

Abstract

In this presentation I will talk about my role as an apprentice working at the Clinical BioManufacturing Facility (University of Oxford) during the manufacture of the first COVID-19 vaccine to undergo clinical trials in the UK. I will discuss why I chose to undertake an apprenticeship over the conventional university route to study science and I will briefly outline my achievements so far

Speakers

14:35-14:40
Antibodies and apprentices: the experience of a laboratory scientist apprentice in AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 response

Abstract

The urgency generated by the COVID-19 pandemic challenged scientists, including apprentices, to adopt new and more efficient ways of working to support accelerated research and development (R&D) timelines. Apprentices played important roles within AstraZeneca, and at a national level, in the response to the pandemic. Here I describe some of the challenges I faced, and opportunities that presented themselves, as a laboratory scientist apprentice in an AstraZeneca R&D lab.

Speakers

14:40-14:45
The experience of a Digital Degree Apprentice

Abstract

I started at AstraZeneca in 2016 as part of the IT Degree Apprenticeship Scheme and specialised in Data Analytics during my second year. I spent my scheme rotating around various IT functions but also spent some time in Global Supply Chain to understand how digital supports the wider organisation. I graduated in 2020 and secured a permanent role in Enterprise Technology Services within IT as a Customer Engagement Analyst and chose to continue on to complete the MSc Digital & Technology Solutions, Data Analytics.

Speakers

14:45-14:50
A Student’s role in delivering the UK’s mass testing COVID response

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic meant that many university practical research projects within a laboratory setting had to be cancelled. Yet, the advent of mass testing across the UK presented students with an opportunity to develop those technical skills as well as gain an insight into the public health sector all whilst dressed in full PPE. Olivia Crossley describes her role within the Asymptomatic Test Centre at the University of Birmingham and how COVID impacted her career expectations.

Speakers

14:50-15:00
Q&A panel
15:00-15:30
Lessons learned from the Pandemic for science communications in an emergency

Abstract

The relationship between scientists and the media during the pandemic is widely acknowledged as one of the things that worked well.  The public gained huge insights and understanding of the virus by being able to hear from so many great scientists.  So what are the main lessons we can take from the way scientists communicated in this pandemic? What aspects of communication do we need to celebrate and bottle for the next national emergency.  Fiona Fox and her team at the SMC were on the front line between scientists and the media for 2 years of the pandemic. Here she will present her teams views on the most important lessons for science communication in a crisis.

Speakers


Chair

16:00-16:30
Investment in the UK Life sciences

Speakers

16:30-16:35
Closing remarks

Speakers