GUEST BLOG: STEM apprentices’ contribution to the COVID-19 pandemic

GUEST BLOG: STEM apprentices’ contribution to the COVID-19 pandemic

10th June 2020

In this blog, IChemE Fellow Kate Barclay talks about how STEM apprentices are at the forefront of the pandemic as well as the importance of developing and supporting applied, industry-relevant STEM talent.

Name: Kate Barclay

Job title and organisation: Independent Consultant and Industry Advisor, Board Member of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), and Skills and Talent lead with the BioIndustry Association (BIA)

Bio: A portfolio career working across high impact STEM talent programmes including Skills Strategy Consultant for Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult at the BIA, and Non-Exec Director for the IfATE. Spent over 25 years in the Bio-Pharmaceutical Industry in senior leadership roles in commercial and clinical manufacture of parenteral, solid dose and inhaled dosage forms and devices. Instrumental in developing apprenticeships across the Life Science Industry, leading the Life Sciences and Industrial Sciences Trailblazer employer group in development of new apprenticeship standards, and has won multiple national awards for the quality of apprenticeship delivery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen unprecedented times with everyone’s individual situation completely different and, unfortunately, it looks like this will remain so for a while to come. I hope you are taking time out to look after yourselves and those around you as it has never been more important to support each other. Personally, balancing the challenges of home schooling and the children’s social zooming with full time work and my own well-being is inspiring at times, demanding at best and hugely frustrating at others.

I have never used so many social media and conferencing platforms individually before never mind all at once.  However, my choice of career has been one thing that has kept me going over the months in lockdown. I take pride in the way the science industry has come together on COVID-19 to deliver on national testing strategies, explore novel treatments, and develop, scale-up and manufacture novel vaccines in collaborative ways across multiple organisations.

Development of a reliable vaccine will be an absolute game changing moment in this pandemic. Scientists and Engineers around the world are working 24/7 as there is so much work to be done in a truly short space of time. It usually takes 5 to 12 years to develop such a vaccine and the world cannot wait that long.

A team led by Oxford University were designing a vaccine in January, identified a suitable adenovirus vector candidate in March, began Phase 1 human trials in April and recruiting for Phase II and III clinical studies in May planned for over 10,000 adults and children across the UK. Additionally, the team led by Imperial College London developed a self-amplifying RNA vaccine within 14 days of getting the sequence from China at the beginning of 2020 and have received significant funding to launch Phase III clinical trials later this year.

In parallel to the research, leading biotech companies across the UK are working as consortia to rapidly develop, scale-up and manufacture the potential vaccine platforms with the possibility for a 1 million dose scale batch size by end of the summer for the adenovirus vaccine. The UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, chaired by Kate Bingham, co-ordinate work across Government, academia, and industry to rapidly develop vaccines in the UK ensuring these complement and support global efforts against COVID-19.

Cutting-edge vaccines do not develop and manufacture themselves and the skills we need across all roles are highly specialised, applying advanced scientific and engineering knowledge, innovative technical skills and forward-thinking professional behaviours to the work carried out. We have many STEM apprentices at the forefront of this pandemic developing the novel vaccines, supporting the complex manufacturing processes and strengthening the analytics to ensure safe and reliable vaccines are made available.

We will not be able to manufacture at scale if we do not have the well-trained staff needed to operate within this highly regulated environment. Recruitment and training in the current climate are extremely challenging as finding candidates with relevant experience within regions where manufacturing is taking place is compounded by the need to take down regulated facilities to carry out training and taking existing technical staff out of operation to teach, all of which slows down the development process.

Alongside developing new vaccines, we must maintain the supply of medicines to patients and continue leading research into new treatments and we have many more apprentices continuing to work on treatments like ground-breaking cell and gene therapies across the UK during this pandemic. There has never been more of a focus on skills in medicines manufacturing than now, and the work of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education has been really important in delivery of high-quality standards and flexible end-point-assessment approaches which develop applied, industry-relevant STEM talent.

For more information on IChemE's response to the coronavirus pandemic, please visit the Coronavirus Information Hub.