UK tech companies tackling Covid-19 – from detection to vaccination

Angela Logan, April 2, 2020 4 min read

The 2020 Tech Nation Report revealed that UK healthtech investment has doubled since 2017, reaching £1.7bn in 2019. And this world-leading sector has just become more crucial than ever. Faced with a global pandemic, innovative scaling companies across the country are utilising Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology and 3D printing to tackle Covid-19 head on.

Gerard Grech, CEO Tech Nation, comments: “Not in living memory have we seen something that has united the world so quickly and with one common goal. The fight against coronavirus is a global priority, and many organisations and businesses have been quick to respond.”

 “From testing and vaccinating, to producing life-saving equipment, all sorts of businesses big and small have registered their willingness to help, with many adapting their areas of expertise to do what they can.” 

Today we take a look at UK tech in the Covid-19 fight.

Learning more about Covid-19

As there are still a lot of unknowns relating to Covid-19, finding out as much as possible about the virus (and quickly) is critical. London-based artificial intelligence company Deepmind have utilized their recently-published deep-learning system AlphaFold to release predicted structures of SARS-CoV-2 under an open license, in the hope that they can feed into wider research around the virus. 

Testing, testing

Testing quickly and widely has become one of the more successful ways of curbing the spread of coronavirus. Bedford-based Mologic, who developed a rapid testing kit for Ebola, were granted around £1 million from the UK government to develop a rapid diagnostic test for Covid-19. 

Two Northern Irish companies are also joining the fight, with Belfast-based Biopanda Diagnostics reportedly in talks with the UK government to supply a simple blood test that could test for Covid-19 antibodies in just 10 minutes. Co Antrim’s Randox Laboratories have also developed a quick test in the space of just 6 weeks, alongside Bosch.

In an example of a company pivoting towards the fight against Covid-19, AlphaBiolabs, a drug, alcohol and DNA-testing company based in Warrington has developed a testing kit that identifies coronavirus before symptoms appear – something that could be key to stopping the spread.

Scientists from the University of Oxford’s Science Engineering department have also developed a rapid test that can give a result in half an hour.

Equipping the frontline

East London-based Geomiq, an online platform that matches design engineers with manufacturers and has a heavy focus on medical devices, has turned their entire focus on tackling Covid-19. Also working with Bosch (kudos to Bosch), they plan to replicate and 3D print the outer shell for vital ventilators. They just need to go-ahead from regulators.

Oxford Optronix have collaborated with Mercedes F1 to develop a new breathing aid that negates the need for a ventilator in under a week. The device helps keep patients out of intensive care, helping to alleviate the pressure on ICUs across the world. If trials go well, Mercedes hope to produce around 1,000 of these per day.

British multinational pharma company GSK is helping to tackle the coronavirus pandemic by donating $10m the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Among other things, it will enable supply of personal protective (PPE) equipment to frontline health workers. 

Finding existing medicines

Future Fifty 8.0 cohort member Benevolent AI have been using their artificial intelligence to identify and analyse the possibilities of already approved drugs being effective in treating Covid-19. They have so far identified Baricitinib as the most promising lead, which is approved for treating rheumatoid arthritis.

Oxford firm Exscientia, who specialise in Artificial Intelligence-driven drug discovery have teamed up with Calibr, a UK national science facility, in order to screen more than 15,000 drugs for their effectiveness as a treatment for Covid-19. Beginning by screening Calbr’s collection for existing compounds that could be repurposed to fight COVID-19, they also plan to use their AI to design even more effective compounds. 

When it comes to treating this quick-spreading virus, speed is also vital. The UK biotech Tiziana Life Sciences have accelerated development of their TZLS-501 treatment, in the hope that it can help patients suffering from respiratory failure. 

“Tests have already shown that the treatment rapidly depletes circulating levels of IL-6 in the blood. An excessive production of IL-6 is regarded as a key driver of chronic inflammation and is believed to be associated with severe lung damage observed with COVID-19 infections and acute respiratory illness.” – Tiziana Life Sciences

Hemel Hempstead company EUSA Pharma has also launched an observational study of IL-6 med Sylvant (siltuximab) to treat patients with severe COVID-19, to explore its effectiveness in reducing time required in intensive care, among other things. 

Coordinating efforts

With so many involved in the national (and indeed global) effort, there needs to be a sophisticated method of organisation. London-based Faculty AI, who were on the Upscale 3.0 cohort, have teamed up with Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Palantir to assist the digital wing of the NHS, NHSX

The companies are collaborating to create a digital dashboard that tracks the amount of ventilators in use and their locations, available and occupied hospital beds, A&E department capacity and how long COVID-19 patients are staying in hospital, among other things. 

UK based Pando, a healthcare messaging service have developed a special COVID-19 forum that allows medics to share vital information quickly and securely. Not only will this help medics to share guidance and broadcast critical information, it can also help them coordinate staff to better tackle shortages. 

And finally, services like Upscale 4.0 cohort member Doctify and Babylon have become crucial for allowing patients to still see their doctors during the time of social distancing. This reduces the chances of infection for GPs and other healthcare specialists, while also protecting those patients who are self-isolating, or are at high risk and cocooning. There’s also Edinburgh based Current Health, who produce AI powered remote patient monitoring wearable devices that can better manage patients at high risk that must be triaged out of the hospital, or as part of an early discharge program for non-COVID patients to preserve hospital capacity.

Gerard Grech continues: “The scale and diversity of efforts, and the collaboration between companies – from conglomerates to small businesses – is inspiring to see.”

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