Making the Vaccine with Peter Coleman former CEO Cobra Biologics: 28 January 2022
As the pandemic slips behind us, for good we hope, we’re in danger of forgetting the astonishing feat of human ingenuity that brought about the biggest vaccination campaign in history. More than 10.2 billion doses have been administered across 184 countries, according to recent data from Bloomberg. The latest rate was roughly 27.9 million doses a day.
The biggest contribution comes from AstraZeneca and was created and made in Britain. The first clinical batch of the vaccination campaign was actually made close to us, on the Keele University Scientific Business Park site, by a modest-sized company called Cobra Biologics. Peter Coleman was its CEO for ten years till 2021, and he told Club members of an astonishing journey to that point.
It started with his own. He’s an accountant by training, not a biologist. Originally from Dukinfield, in fact he left school early, had a variety of jobs, worked in his dad’s engineering business for 7 years, but in 1994 found employment with a small but listed pharmaceutical company based in Liverpool. Soon however as he worked with graduates and PhDs, he realised he needed to get himself an education, which he did by going to night school for his accountancy qualifications and eventually achieved an MBA.
Cobra also has a long and at times turbulent history. As local people know, there used to be a large pharma industry in Cheshire spun out of ICI in 1993 called Zeneca, which linked with the Swedish giant Astra in 1999. But when R & D facilities were moved from Alderley Park to Cambridge many talented people faced difficult choices. One group of biologists decided they liked being round here, and set up their own business close to Keele University.
The company went through various name changes and financial troubles. It was bought by the firm Peter was working for in 2000 and he became its finance director from 2002, and promoted to CEO in 2011. It’s been funded by numerous owners and investors including Fidelity, New Star, a Middle Eastern Sovereign Wealth Fund and Blackrock, and from 2011 to 2019 by a Swedish private investor, Thomas Eldered. At one stage during the 2008/9 banking crisis it was virtually bankrupt, when it was costing £150,00 a week to keep going with less than £30,000 in the bank. A Swedish company bought it for only £1 out of administration at which point the staff hadn’t been paid for three months. By 2020 however the name was Cobra Biologics, work booked had risen from under £5millions to over £60millions and it was part of the Cognate BioServices group based in the UK, Sweden and the US.
What does the business do? It’s a CDMO (Contract Development and Manufacturing Organisation) developing and manufacturing biological clinical materials for R&D businesses located all over the world. For many products only small quantities are required – certain cancer drugs, or therapies for rare diseases. In the case of the Covid vaccine, it was one of numerous locations under contract to AZ. But it was the first organisation to manufacture the vaccine at scale for clinical trials, and Peter can claim a lot of credit for that.
Back in February 2020, as news of the Wuhan outbreak surfaced, Peter and colleagues were on a trade mission to Canada. Up popped an email, an appeal from the UK’s BioIndustry Association (the BIA, the industry trade association) looking for collaborators with Oxford University’s Jenner Institute. Peter and his CSO, Professor Dan Smith agreed that it was something Cobra could help with and decided to go for it. The Oxford team had identified a suitable vaccine candidate as early as 10 January 2020, based on their MERS vaccine which had already been in clinical trials. But making vast batches of something brand new which would be ultra-safe, stable and effective required commercial as well as scientific expertise. Moreover, Oxford wanted the vaccine to be cheap and easily transported so it could truly be a global remedy. This was where Cobra knew its job, and Peter became joint chair of the Adenovirus workstream of the BIA Covid Vaccine Task Force, working with Kate Bingham, Oxford and the UK government, the source of the cash.
The whirlwind that followed is described in the book Vaxxers by Professors Catherine Green and Sarah Gilbert, published in 2021. Peter’s team, like the academics, worked flat out for many months with no guarantee of success, and for much of the time with no money and no contract, with key staff seconded gratis to the Oxford manufacturing consortium. “From March to May 2020 nobody was being paid,” he told us. His earlier experience was proving useful, it seemed. Using a fermentation process, they needed clinically clean facilities on a big scale; the largest batch they could produce would be in a 200-litre bioreactor which arrived on 8th April. Offered a 1000-litre vat (which would give a much cheaper product, if it worked), the ceiling height of their building was just too low; the same problem afflicted Oxford Biomedica where only one of the monster bioreactors could be deployed.
“Could you not link together five 200-litre reactors?” asked one member. “That’s possible, but it would give five times the chance of something going wrong,” Peter explained. “The biological process is highly temperamental. Even if you know what you are doing, the uncertainties are enormous.”
Only 109 days later, on 26th July, their first clinical batch was ready, the AZ contract duly signed and clinical trials could get under way. The results were more than promising – in terms of generating antibodies to Covid, they were spectacular. At one point Professor Gilbert was confident that the vaccine would be ready in September, but it wasn’t till 8th December that 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to be jabbed – and that was with Pfizer. On January 4th 2021 however, the first British AZ vaccine was in the first arms, and it was made by Cobra.
The story for Cobra did not end there. Within weeks, the parent company was bought for a whopping $875millions by Charles River Laboratories Inc, a $3billion turnover US pharma corporation based in Wilmington, Massachusetts. A new management team arrived. Peter stayed on for six months to help manage the handover, but then left, after over 20 years with the company.
To my mind the saga shows how little we have appreciated our manufacturing and engineering knowledge and commitment in recent decades. Hopefully, that’s now been remedied, but don’t hold your breath – many of the UK’s ablest young graduates would still rather be on eye-watering salaries with Blackrock that unravelling the intricacies of complex cutting edge manufacture. Perhaps it also shows that pharma can’t be small now; it needs billions for development and expansion, and is bound to draw on international resources of expertise and supply, just as its customers are worldwide.
This was a remarkable story which enthralled his audience. We felt privileged to hear it.