Inside new vaccine centre where scientists work to fend off 'Disease X'

Science Correspondent Martin Stew reports from inside the secretive Porton Down facility

It is accepted the UK was not ready in 2019 for a global pandemic which would kill thousands and shut down society for around two years - but scientists hope next time they will be, if or when 'Disease X' arrives.

Ministers have utilised the mysterious Porton Down defence and science campus to house a state-of-the-art vaccine research facility where scientists are working to fend off the next Covid-19.

Since it was opened during the first world war, Porton Down has been the secret line of defence against the scariest hazards to our health, both chemical and biological.

But ITV News Science Correspondent Martin Stew was given access to the usually restricted research centre to visit the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre (VDEC) and speak to the scientists who are working behind enemy lines to protect us from new deadly viruses.

There are 200 scientists working at the facility who are able to carry out 30 times more tests per week than they were before the coronavirus pandemic.

They are battling dangerous category 3 viruses, which either have no cure or are highly damaging and can spread quickly - such as Disease X.

According to Oxford University, some scientists believe there is "more than a one in four chance in the next decade of another global pandemic" and the World Health Organisation refers to that theoretical virus as Disease X.

But there are more present threats much closer to home - such as a Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, a tick-borne virus which is fatal in about 30% of cases which was found in the New Forest, Hampshire.

Porton Down's vaccine experts are currently running phase one clinical trials on a potential world-first jab against that deadly virus.

Chief Scientific Officer Dr Isabel Oliver told ITV News these kinds of viruses are becoming more common.

"The health effects of climate change are already being felt," she said. "We are already seeing a change in the distribution for example vector borne viruses, those viruses which are carried by mosquitos and by ticks."

The government has invested £65 million into the facility to bolster the UK’s contribution to the 100 Days Mission, a global goal set by the G7 in 2021 with the aim of deploying a vaccine against any new pandemic threat within 100 days of identification.

Coronavirus exposed the UK's preparedness for a pandemic, and the public hearings in the Covid-19 Inquiry have investigated what went wrong.

It heard that previous governments had focused too much on preparing for an influenza pandemic rather than other types of pathogens, with former prime minister David Cameron admitting it was a “mistake”.

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The chair of UK's Vaccine Taskforce during the Covid pandemic, Kate Bingham, recently criticised the government for scaling back the ability to manufacture vaccine quickly.

Responding, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, Dr Jenny Harries, told ITV News that ministers has invested in a "Moderna strategic partnership", which will allow the government to support vaccine companies operating in the UK.

On Disease X, she said: “We don’t know what it is but we can get ready for some virus families.

“We can guess a little bit; we can look at changing the epidemiology of different viruses, we can look at changing climate and start to estimate, but we will never know 100%.

“What we try to do here is keep an eye on the ones that we do know. For example with Covid, we are still here testing all the new variants with the vaccines that have been provided to check they are still effective.

“But we are also looking at how quickly we can develop a new test that would be used if a brand new virus popped up somewhere.”