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Vaccine scientists launch social enterprise to prevent drug giant costs

With human trials for their vaccine beginning next week, Imperial College London is creating the new business to make sure it will be accessible to all if successful

Imperial College London scientists will ensure any Covid-19 vaccine is cheaper and easier to distribute by forming a social enterprise to sidestep massive pharmaceutical industry prices.

VacEquity Global Health (VGH) will work to “accelerate” distribution of a vaccine across the world, waiving royalties and charging modestly to make sure access to it is not limited to wealthy countries. The lab team believes the social enterprise model, meaning a for-profit business which reinvests earnings into the group’s mission, will mean those living in less well-off areas of the world won’t be left behind when a vaccine becomes available.

The Big Issue was launched as a social enterprise in 1991, using profits to support vendors and drive forward the fight to end homelessness for good.

VGH, also supported by investment firm Morningside Ventures, will launch phase one/two human trials next week with 300 people, with a further trial involving 6,000 people planned for October.

Professor Robin Shattock, head of mucosal infection and immunity at Imperial College London and co-founder of both VGH, said: “We have spent an intense six months to fast-track our vaccine to the clinic, now we are ready to combat the virus through our clinical trials.

“We are grateful to the thousands of people helping us advance the vaccine: from donors, investors and the government to volunteers for our clinical trials. These new enterprises are the most effective way for us to deliver COVID-19 vaccines quickly, cheaply and internationally, while preparing for future pandemics.”

The Imperial vaccine effort has been driven by funding from the UK Government and philanthropists, receiving more than £40 million of public money and £5 million from donors.

Professor Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London, said the new social enterprise – when coupled with another new startup being launched to develop the technology being used in the vaccine to fight further health issues beyond the virus – will “fight disease, create thousands of jobs and fast-track scientific advances”.

She added: “We are determined to both defeat the current coronavirus and improve the world’s readiness to fight pandemics for generations to come.

“Professor Shattock’s team show Imperial at its best: turning cutting-edge discoveries into practical applications that improve lives. We are proud of, and grateful to, the many researchers, students, taxpayers, philanthropists and investors who have helped us reach this promising stage.”

Researchers estimate that if these human trials are successful, the Imperial lab team’s vaccine can begin being distributed in the UK and around the world early next year.