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Wellcome Trust to spend £16bn on research with focus on Covid vaccines | Pharmaceuticals industry

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The Wellcome Trust, Britain’s biggest charity, is ramping up spending on science research to £16bn over the next 10 years, with a focus on funding next-generation Covid vaccines, after it reaped the highest investment returns in a quarter of a century.

Wellcome said it was making its biggest funding commitment to science and health in its 85-year history. It was created by the will of the pharmaceuticals entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936. The £16bn promise comes after it spent more than £9bn on research grants and other charitable activities over the past decade, including £1.2bn last year alone.

The trust made a 34.5% return in the year to 30 September on its investment portfolio, which is now worth £38.2bn, about £10bn more than a year ago. This is its best performance since it was created in its present form as an independent charitable foundation in 1995, when Wellcome plc was sold off to the drugmaker Glaxo, which later became GlaxoSmithKline.

One of Wellcome’s top investment picks was DoorDash, a US-based food delivery business, which doubled in price since its stock market flotation in December, generating a profit of more than £1bn for Wellcome, an early investor.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of Wellcome and a former member of the government’s Sage advisory committee, hailed a “phenomenal year,” and said the investment returns marked “a step-change in Wellcome’s ability to fund and support new discoveries in science and health, and help solve three of the great challenges of the 21st century: climate change and its impact on health, existential infectious diseases, Covid is the best example recently, and mental health, particularly of young people”.

Farrar said some of the money would go towards funding second- and third-generation Covid vaccines as part of Wellcome’s infectious diseases programme, as the virus becomes endemic.

“The vaccines have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, but they’re not perfect,” he said. Second-generation vaccines that work against Omicron are around the corner, from Pfizer/BioNTech and others, but he stressed the importance of developing third-generation vaccines that might stop transmission over the next few years.

“Covid is not going to go away. It’s with humanity for a very long time, probably for ever,” he said.

“As long as transmission goes on at the level it is at the moment, the risk of new variants is higher. What we need to do is have a vaccine that can be stored at room temperature, gives you long-lasting, multi-year protection, prevents transmission and stops you getting sick… There’s no doubt that beyond Covid other coronaviruses remain a risk.”

Farrar said while 2021 had been “awful” in terms of the fair distribution of vaccine supplies around the world, he was much more optimistic about this year, as global manufacturing capacity is being ramped up to 20bn doses. He said it should be possible, by June, to achieve the World Health Organization’s target of vaccinating 70% of the world’s population. At the moment, 50% is fully vaccinated.

The trust’s annual report showed that pay packets surged at its investment team after the record returns. Nick Moakes, the chief investment officer, was awarded £7.9m last year while Peter Pereira Gray, the chief executive of the investment division, received a £7.8m package, making them the highest-paid charity workers in the UK. The packages include long-term bonuses that have not been paid yet. The previous year, they were awarded £4.6m and £4.5m, respectively.

Farrar said the pay packages were considerably less than what it would pay outside investment managers, adding that they should be seen in the context of the big university endowment funds in the US.

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In comparison, Farrar was paid £515,216 last year, up from £483,788 in 2020.

Wellcome said it would spend more on cross-sector collaborations such as the public-private Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), co-founded by Wellcome in 2017, which has brought together various parties to develop and fairly distribute Covid-19 vaccines. Wellcome also helped fund the Covid vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

As part of its £150m commitment to fight the pandemic, the charity has supported genomics researchers to keep up with the virus. The Wellcome Sanger Institute was at one point responsible for half of the world’s Covid-19 sequencing.

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