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In emergencies, knowledge exchange is power

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Though PHE is best known for having a domestic remit, responding to public health emergencies across the globe is also very much part of what we do as an organisation.

And this isn’t just about the work of our world class doctors and scientists - our business development managers, lawyers, finance, estates and ICT professionals and many others can make a huge contribution to controlling outbreaks and responding to emergencies wherever they arise.

Well publicised health emergencies such as the Ebola and Zika outbreaks require a strong response, with this work needing to happen quickly and effectively.

But science and research isn’t ordinarily required to deliver results at great speed so through exchanging knowledge and sharing our learnings we can give ourselves the best chance of bringing emergencies under control more quickly.

Why does exchanging knowledge play such an important role?

You may know that many of our incredible scientists, volunteers and front line staff have received Ebola medals for their vital and life-risking efforts in West Africa, but you might be less aware of the work done inside offices and in front of computer monitors.

During the Ebola outbreak our teams behind the scenes needed to respond to the situation while under immense pressure, juggling many different work streams and responding to this changing, high profile emergency.

A key aspect of working collaboratively in emergencies is having an efficient way to exchange knowledge, and during the Ebola crisis we needed to call on other industry experts, academia and other public bodies in a robust, streamlined way to join up this expertise and come up with the strongest response possible.

For instance, we were approached by a number of academic and commercial entities requesting rapid evaluation of re-purposed drugs, experimental therapies and vaccines for Ebola. So with the support of the Wellcome Trust, who added important expertise, we evaluated these pharmaceutical candidates developed in companies and universities across the world.

Our business development and legal teams worked closely during this project to produce a fast track evaluation agreement, which has been successfully adapted for rapid screening of drugs, therapies and vaccines in response to the current Zika outbreak.

Thanks to this, we are able to make vital agreements within 24-48 hours, ahead of the scientific protocol being finalised and the work being put into place.

This partnership was a huge success and in part led to PHE business development team being awarded the ‘Impact Award for Contribution to Society’ by the UK Research Councils and PraxisUnico, which look at knowledge exchange and stewardship.

We’ve now developed guidance for other organisations to take a similar approach and hope to promote the fact that this could work across the wider public sector, because it helps us work smarter, more effectively and may help advances in science happen more quickly.

The vision is for public bodies to respond quickly to rapidly-evolving situations, at short notice, with minimum negotiation, as well as to break down barriers that could get in the way during a period of emergency response.

We want to be able to assess countermeasures and quickly take action when people need our help without bureaucracy getting in the way.

Taking this approach forward

The Intellectual Property Office has a resource called the Lambert Toolkit, which has existed over the last decade as a suite of agreement templates to exchange knowledge between industry and universities without favouring either. Indeed, PHE senior managers have contributed to the revision of this toolkit since 2013.

This week, a revised version of this toolkit was launched in Edinburgh by Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG, the Minister of State for Energy and Intellectual Property, at the annual conference of the Association for University Research and Industry Links.

Included in this toolkit is PHE’s fast track evaluation model agreement which we have adapted and made applicable for any ‘One Health’ crisis affecting the health of people, animals and/or the environment.

It’s important that our experience from Ebola and Zika is shared more widely across government departments and we’ve liaised with consortia of UK and international government bodies to understand lessons from global emergencies.

As I often say to my finance and commercial teams, “none of us are as clever as all of us”, and we all have so much to contribute to public health within our own professions – but always best collaboratively.

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