Six British Biotechs Helping to Tackle COVID-19

Elmira TanatarovaFeatures
Microscope on United Kingdom (UK) flag

Image credit: Anton_Medvedev / Shutterstock.com

While the UK has rolled out one of the quickest vaccination programmes in Europe, the British biotech sector has faced unique challenges in innovation.

Before the pandemic, the industry was still quite small on the island. Everything was imported, save one plant in Liverpool which made seasonal jabs and another in Scotland working on the less-known Japanese encephalitis vaccine. There are now four companies preparing to, and making, leading COVID-19 vaccines in the UK.

The research behind them has been so impressive that Andrew Boyle, the CEO of investment firm LGB&Co, wrote that British biotech is due for a “renaissance,” with the FTSE 350 Pharmaceuticals & Biotech index hitting all-time highs in May. The British chancellor Rishi Sunak is finalising a proposal to launch a new public-private investment fund which would support growing biotech and life sciences, and could be announced as early as the new budget in March.

According to the BioIndustry Association (BIA), the biotech sector raised a record £2.8 billion in 2020, marking it the “best ever year for the sector.”

BIA chief executive Steve Bates OBE told The Org that the record level of investment displays the importance of the future of British biotechs well beyond the pandemic.

He says that UK biotechs’ international efforts to tackle the pandemic will lead onto vital improvements in innovative new therapies in cell and gene therapies, genomics and digital health technologies.

“The UK will continue to be a global player in bringing innovative treatments to patients, and as a key economic engine, in the UK’s recovery from COVID-19,” Bates explains. “Global investors recognise this... As UK pensioners benefit from COVID-19 vaccines, I urge them to ask their pension fund trustees and advisors what they are doing to invest in this critical UK success story.”

The Org looked at British biotech companies that have made leaps across a number of areas, from antibody testing to gene-sequencing, and who have boosted sales and innovation capacity in response to COVID.

Biopanda Reagents

Belfast-based Biopanda made the news last summer when it became one of the primary suppliers of antibody tests available. By May, it had sold over 300,000 across the world, mostly in the UK, where it was only available for sale to healthcare and clinical staff. The tests worked by taking a small blood sample and detecting the antibodies one’s body would produce if infected with the virus - called IgM, detectable a few days after infection. The company, which saw a huge demand when rolling out the tests, had to hire extra staff just to help with packing and dispatching and was forced to stop taking international orders due to overwhelming demand.

Biopanda has since gone on to develop a rapid antigen test, intended for use as a tool to assist in the diagnosis of the virus.

biopanda covid19 agtest2

Biopanda's Covid-19 Rapid Antigen Test Kit. Image credit: Biopanda Reagents.

Cobra Biologics

Bioservices company Cobra Biologics has been instrumental in helping roll out one of the UK’s leading vaccines, AZD1222, developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca. Cobra and other companies formed a consortium that aided the quick and efficient large-scale manufacturing of the vaccine. Oxford University and AstraZeneca didn’t have any large-scale vaccine manufacturing experience, so production partnerships with Cobra Biologics and others in the consortium was vital in rolling it out.

The biotech’s specialisation in viral vector manufacturing has been its leading contribution to the production of the AZD1222 vaccine. Viral vectors are tools which scientists use to deliver genetic materials into cells, which helps in the development of vaccines.

Last month Cobra was shortlisted for two Bionow Awards - a prestigious accolade in the industry - for its work in developing a leading vaccine.

In October of last year, Cobra also began work with Scancell, who have been working on a variant-proof vaccine, which has the potential to fight off all strains of the virus; clinical trials are due to start within weeks.

Mologic

Describing itself as a “leading developer of lateral flow and rapid diagnostic technologies, products and services,” Mologic works with companies, researchers, and clinicians to develop diagnostic tools. Last year it was awarded £1 million as part of the British government’s £46 million Covid research funding package. Over the past year, Mologic has immersed itself in antigen rapid testing technology.

These are quick tests designed to detect antibody-producing antigens and have been used to tell people whether they are infected with the coronavirus within 10 - 15 minutes. Mologic’s tests were also trialed at Heathrow airport amongst other large venues over last summer to help determine the most efficient testing method for when airborne travel is back at full capacity.

This month, the biotech company announced a commercial partnership with biotherapeutic developer Avacta Group to accelerate marketing of the latter’s AffiDX™ SARS-CoV-2 lateral flow rapid antigen test, helping to support its accessibility in low and middle income countries.

Randox

Randox is a diagnostics specialist biotech that has been a key player in the development of PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) Covid tests, which works by detecting the virus’ RNA; its genetic information.

Randox’s rapid testing has been used within the UK’s national testing programme and is responsible for some 17% of all the tests carried out. Last month, the biotech said it reached a key milestone of reporting nine million tests to the national programme, and will soon be closing in on 10 million.

It has employed over 850 new staff into its labs and is now able to run through 100,000 samples in less than 24 hours. Radox has gone from doing 150 samples with 10 people on rota in a day last March to 104,000 samples with 850 people last month.

Randox mobile testing site at Heathrow Airport

Randox mobile testing site at Heathrow Airport. Image credit: Randox, Instagram.

Oxford Nanopore

While most biotech’s have contributed their impressive research towards testing equipment, Oxford Nanopore has used its DNA sequencing technology during the pandemic to help researchers determine coronavirus-causing gene changes.

This has been useful in investigating the different variants of the virus around the world. Oxford Nanopore does its DNA sequencing through a hand-held device called MinION - it’s no bigger than a cell phone at just over 100 grams, and costs $1,000, cheaper than a lot of lab equipment around the world. It runs by simply plugging into a laptop through a USB cable.

The company’s technology has been used in over 50 countries since January 2020 to track the different strains and mutations of the virus. Oxford Nanopore has attracted international investors as a result, with China Construction Bank and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) as investors.

Last October, International Holdings Company invested £39m in a £84.4m equity raise. Oxford Nanopore now has a valuation of £1.5 billion and is one of the UK’s 18 unicorns.

Oxford Nanopore - MinION 2 (credit Oxford Nanopore).jpg

Oxford Nanopore's MinION. Image credit: Oxford Nanopore.

Oxford Optronix

Oxford Optronix wasted no time in supporting the NHS. After an emergency call by the National Health Service, the research instrumentation provider developed an oxygen monitor prototype after only five days of work last March.

Oxygen monitors are classed as Positive Airway Pressure (cPAP) devices, which the NHS was in dire need of at the beginning stages of the pandemic to help provide patients with a steady flow of oxygen.

By April, it had built 2,000 of the Flo-Ox monitors in only eight days.

Oxford Optronix

Oxford Optronix's Flo-Ox Oxygen Monitor. Image credit: Oxford Optronix.

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