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How Horizon Discovery’s Brexit plan kickstarted coronavirus response




Horizon Discovery technician at work in one of the labs at Cambridge Research Park, Waterbeach. Picture: Keith Heppell
Horizon Discovery technician at work in one of the labs at Cambridge Research Park, Waterbeach. Picture: Keith Heppell

Horizon Discovery’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was made easier because the life sciences company was able to implement measures devised for a hard Brexit when the deadly virus hit.

Chris Lowe, the company’s head of research operations, and Martin Butler, director of supply chain, described how the situation has unfolded for the gene editing solutions pace-setter in an exclusive interview for the Cambridge Independent.

“We’re managing our customers and services in terms of a Covid-19 response team both here in the UK and in Boulder, Colorado,” said Martin.

“First and foremost our aim is to protect staff and maintain safety, including offering advice to all staff. We’re checking the inventory daily along with our manufacturing capacity and supply chains to ensure supply to key customers. This month has been spent in constant communication across the business, and we’re maintaining shipments in the UK, in Europe and indeed globally.

“We’re doing pretty well with incoming supplies, surprisingly, because to achieve Brexit readiness we’ve been working with our supply chain partners to mitigate against a hard exit from Europe. Those plans give us a robustness and flexibility, so at present we have no material supply issues either in Boulder or in the UK.”

We work in an informed field,” says Chris. “We’re having a lot of dialogues in different parts of the world, they’re letting us know their capabilities to navigate through these uncertain times. The global nature of this business allows us to continue.”

Have you seen some territories ride this out better than others?

“I wouldn’t go that far,” says Chris, “but we’re starting to see China do more business than anticipated. The rest of the world is currently unknown to us. In Europe the picture is uncertain: every country is tacking in slightly different ways. Everyone is trying to continue the business of developing new drugs and adapting as best they can.”

Horizon Discovery designs and engineers genetically-modified cells and then applies them in research and clinical applications, so how are the different sectors – drug discovery, diagnostics, other biotech – responding?

“We have two sides to the business,” replies Chris. “As well as biotech we also serve a big academic market, and that has been required to shut down quicker in certain places. Certainly Cambridge University is locked down considerably, and that is expected to have some impact.

“The pharma sector is trying to continue doing all their work. Most people are still trying to carry on. Some are doing remote research. Clearly there’s a balance between continuing with research and winding down non-essential parts of the business.

“In terms of Covid-related activity it’s a very different take: we are engaging with some institutions in the US and we may be able to provide reagents to them. Of course, we don’t always know if they’re testing for Covid-19 but there are various institutions and government bodies where we can be of use.”

Chris Lowe, head of research operations at Horizon Discovery
Chris Lowe, head of research operations at Horizon Discovery

Horizon Discovery, which employs 400 people globally, is also active closer to home, adds Martin.

“From the local perspective the biotech community is trying to support frontline services,” he notes. “We’ve reacted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital’s request for PPE – personal protective equipment – and we have delivered gloves to Addenbrooke’s this week, and diverted fruit and milk to staff there who are working in the frontline of this crisis. They are small gestures but Cambridge working together as a biotech community will make a difference, we hope.”

While most staff are now working from home, the necessity to continue with some lab work has meant some of the staff are continuing to go in to work at the company’s Cambridge Research Park site in Waterbeach.

“At the Cambridge site, around 20 to 30 per cent of the workforce are coming in,” reports Martin. “These are only people that come in to do essential scientific-related work in the lab, otherwise everyone is working from home. In the last two years we’ve invested heavily in operations so staff can work remotely. There are a minimum number of staff on site, and social distancing is in place in office spaces and laboratories.

“We’ve reduced the shift so the minimum amount of time is spent on site at any one time, and staff leave to work from home as soon as they can. It’s a very safe environment in terms of hygiene.”

Horizon Discovery has donated 43 cases of nitrile gloves to Addenbrooke’s Hospital as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to overwhelm health care systems in the UK
Horizon Discovery has donated 43 cases of nitrile gloves to Addenbrooke’s Hospital as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to overwhelm health care systems in the UK

Horizon Discovery is working with all appropriate agencies and government departments to ensure it complies with all relevant regulations.

“We’re talking with key trade associations, the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, plus One Nucleus – we’ve had conversations with Tony Jones, the chair – along with the BioIndustry Association,” Martin notes. “The trade associations are talking with government departments on our behalf, taking guidance.

“We’re lucky in that the sector has a very strong trade association and a very strong liaison with the government, which has been extraordinarily helpful.

“The big thing is to make sure we’re not bringing anyone to the site unnecessarily. Where at all possible staff are working from home.”

Chris adds: “We are very fortunate to have very supportive staff: this is an unprecedented and unusual environment for us all. We have daily staff updates. We’re interpreting the legislation and putting it into action. The teams have been incredibly supportive and adaptive.

“There have been issues but in a situation like this it makes you proud to be working for the greater good.”



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