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Oxford Biomedica boss on life inside the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine factory

·7-min read
Coronavirus – Mon Jan 18, 2021 (PA Wire)
Coronavirus – Mon Jan 18, 2021 (PA Wire)

“It sounds strange to say it, given everything that’s happened, but for us as a business.. this has been a pretty good year.”

John Dawson, the longtime CEO of Oxford Biomedica - the Oxford University biotech spin-off now churning out tens of millions of doses of the university’s Covid-19 vaccine for AstraZeneca - is guilty of a slight understatement.

In the past 12 months, the cell and gene therapy firm which he has led since 2008, has been on the frontline of big pharma’s fightback against the pandemic.

In the process, it leapt from London’s main market into the FTSE 250 in June, thanks to a 33% leap in its share price.

Its new production facility Oxbox, an 84000sq ft former Royal Mail sorting office which was opened in January with “future-proofing very much in mind”, is now completely full.

philip gatward
philip gatward

The workforce has almost doubled in size to around 700 and, following a visit from Boris Johnson, the company has been plastered across front pages around the world.

Today it announced that its tie-up with Astra - where it is generally considered the star of the international vaccine manufacturing efforts - has been significantly enhanced.

Revenue forecast to come in as a result of that part of its operations has now been doubled to £100million, leading analysts to predict this will add double-digit millions to its underlying profits come year-end.

That sent the share price up another 10%, putting the company valuation within spitting distance of £1billion ‘unicorn’ status.

But back to the science.

Oxford Biomedica typically uses lentiviral vectors - derived from the family of viruses responsible for diseases like AIDs - to insert modified genetic code into cells.

It has previously worked with Novartis on child leukaemia treatment Kymriah, and has a tie-up with Nasdaq-listed Axovant for a Parkinson’s treatment.

But its selection by AstraZeneca to manufacture the AZD1222 candidate vaccine developed by researchers at Oxford’s Jenner Institute has propelled the company to another level.

Boris Johnson on a tour of the OxboxPA
Boris Johnson on a tour of the OxboxPA

Dawson, a 62-year-old father-of-two who lives near Leatherhead in Surrey, told the Standard: “We started working with them in May and we knew straight away we’d have to scale up, we’d gone as far as we could with our lentivector platform.”

First batches were made using the existing 200litre bioreactors already on site. Those quickly proved too small and it borrowed two vast 1000litre chambers to scale up operations.

Dawson said: “It was a huge job, easily 10 months’ work to get everything working, tested and approved. We did it in five months. People rose to the challenge.

“I remember talking to Nick Page, our COO, in the factory on Christmas Day and on New Year’s Day. That’s what people did: they gave up everything and just worked. We haven’t stopped.”

The current AZ deal is for 18-months supply of the vaccine as part of a three-year master agreement.

Astra has agreed to provide the jab on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the pandemic, something Dawson describes as “a bold move”.

While a precise figure for the number of doses already manufactured at the Oxbox is a closely-guarded secret, it is in the tens of millions. From today, you can double that.

Oxford Biomedica
Oxford Biomedica

Dawson, a chartered accountant by background, recalled how over the years his firm had faced “dark days” with creditors circling, cashflow drying up and not even serial tech stockpicker Neil Woodford willing to put a hand in his very deep pockets.

Now things look very different.

A fundraise last June in a £40 million share placing at 800p was the “easiest ever” and perhaps ironically, the firm’s corporate office was once the HQ of Woodford’s doomed Investment Management group.

Dawson went on: “It’s amazing how success breeds success. Once upon a time recruiting great people was tough but we can really get who we want now.

“We pay good money, it’s a competitive area, but more its more important to get the culture right. If you’ve grown very quickly it can be a soulless company.

“We’ve put a lot of time into explaining what we want to achieve, where we want to go and getting our people to buy into that story - that's as important as paying people.”

Dawson was speaking as AZ’s boss Pascal Soriot faced down a shareholder rebellion over bonuses lifting his £14.5million salary.

“I can’t say anything about that... but I would say what he has done to Astra has been, well, nothing short of phenomenal.”

Oxford Biomedica
Oxford Biomedica

While it is the vaccine that has propelled Biomedia into the limelight, the company remains committed to its ‘hybrid’ status, continuing to conduct research and forge partnerships with other pharma giants employing its technology to develop treatments for serious illness in the fields of cancer, immunotherapy, ophthalmology, and liver and respiratory diseases.

Dawson said: “We always said this would not affect our core business and we've stood to that. We’ve brought new people on board, many working all the hours god sends, but there’s a special reason for what we’re doing.

“We've put ourselves in the shop window in helping with the pandemic, in having the PM down and in talking publicly about what we’re doing.

“AstraZeneca have been great: they’ve been telling everyone about the great job we’ve done and have been pioneering us to anyone who’ll listen.

“If there’s more stuff to do with vaccine going forward they’ve made it clear they’d like to work with us. No promises, we have to see what happens.

“But we are a hybrid company so we have our own products coming through and we’re pushing those very hard.”

The life-or-death circumstances surrounding the global race to develop, test and mass-produce a Covid vaccine saw unprecedented cooperation between rival drug companies and regulatory authorities to get a working shot available as quickly as possible.

Dawson raises a quizzical eyebrow over whether such streamlined collaboration will continue once the pandemic has finally been tamed.

Oxford Biomedica
Oxford Biomedica

He said: “The priority here was to cure the pandemic. We have proved you can develop a drug, get it working and get it approved very, very quickly if you have the right situation.

“Will that become the new normal going forward? I'd love to think so - but when the race is back on to be the first to bring a new treatment to market, honestly, I don’t know that that will be the case.”

He nevertheless remains wildly enthusiastic about the UK’s booming biotech industry, and is a judge for this year’s European MediScience Awards - which showcases achievements in the healthcare, biotech, pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors.

He said: “Seeing all these brand new companies, there is some fantastic stuff coming through and when you sift through it you really get a sense of how great the UK biotech scene is - how many things are coming through, how exciting they are, how many great people there are working here.”

Of his company’s role in the vaccine rollout, he says: “To be involved in this has been astounding. I've been in this industry for a long time. When we launched Kymriah with Novartis, helping children with cancer that was fantastic, but this one has been stunning.

“Someone tells us the vaccine has saved 10,000 lives so far in the UK, probably more - that’s a staggering thing to be part of.

“It’s given us that best PR we could have ever had without any question, it was the right thing to do, it was the moral thing to do and it’s been very good for our business.

“If you get all of that working together I suppose you could say it’s worked out quite nicely.”

There’s that understatement, again.

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