Last week Sharon Todd, chief executive of the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI), delivered a comprehensive list of all the UK SMEs with technologies capable of assisting in the coronavirus crisis to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

SCI researchers highlighted a remarkable 236 SMEs whose research and manufacturing skills covered vaccines, anti-virus products, testing, advanced materials, medical devices and hospital equipment.

Since the crisis began the UK government has largely ignored SMEs while asking big firms such as Dyson, Rolls-Royce and JCB to design and construct thousands of badly needed ventilators. It now seems unlikely that any of these designs will reach mass production before the peak infection period has itself passed.

One multinational firm that has proved its worth is the chemicals firm INEOS, whose new hand sanitiser plant near Middlesbrough will soon come on stream and start making one million bottles per month.

In another big firm project, Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains worked with engineers at University College London to develop a breathing aid known as a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. But the oxygen monitors for the CPAP devices are being manufactured by micro SME Oxford Optronix Ltd.

Chief executive Andy Obeid said: “By working flat out and mobilising the support of every individual in my company as well as other small companies across the UK, we have accomplished something in five days that would normally take two years.”

There are dozens of other SMEs working round the clock to deliver components and products, sometimes direct to hospitals and clinics. In Wales Maurice Clark, design engineer at plastics firm CR Clark Betws in Ammanford, collaborated with local hospital consultant Dr Rhys Thomas to build and trial a new type of ventilator. In just three days they produced simple robust ventilator unit.

CoronavirusDr Thomas said: “Although it won’t replace an ICU ventilator, the majority of patients won’t need intensive care if they are treated with this ventilator first, releasing ICU ventilators for more serious COVID-19 cases and other general medical cases.

“The machine has other benefits in that it will clean the room of viral particles and only supply purified air to the patient. The patient can self-care as specialist nurses are not required, releasing them for other duties.”

Plymouth-based Princess Yachts, which halted manufacturing last week, has donated all of its protective equipment to the city council for onward distribution among home care workers and NHS employees. Chairman Antony Sheriff said: “We hope this donation of our PPE goes some way to helping NHS staff and other such services in these incredibly difficult times.”

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CORONAVIRUS LIVE BLOG

Over the next few, vital weeks the task of alleviating the acute shortage of personal protection equipment, and virus testing kits, will be the focus of innovative small companies. Countries such as Ireland, Portugal and Italy have bought emergency supplies from China – only to find many were unusable. UK-built ventilators and test kits are now the only option.

In Bedfordshire, diagnostic specialists Mologic Ltd has used its experience in developing an Ebola rapid test kit to produce another for the coronavirus. Jointly funded by the Wellcome Trust and £1m from the UK Government, the kit ‘will enable health workers to obtain a test result for the virus in 10 minutes’.

SureScreen Diagnostics in Basingstoke has also developed a testing kit in conjunction with North Hants & Basingstoke NHS Trust and its noted lab director Steve Kidd. Earlier, it complained of government indifference to its initiative.

In Cambridge Rapid Sensor Systems, which pioneered a breath test for TB in 2005, believes this could be adapted to form a very accurate COVID-19 test, ready in five minutes. MD Dennis Camilleri said: “Based in doctors’ surgeries, it could provide speedy results, and it could be further developed to cover Bovine TB, E.Coli and malaria.”

Manchester molecular testing firm Genedrive plc ‘is close to producing a hand-held device to test for coronavirus’ by refocusing research towards development of two SARS-COV-2 tests. The company’s first assay fits most high throughput molecular testing platforms already installed in many laboratories around the world, said David Budd, Genedrive’s chief executive. The firm is seeking development partners, distributors and non-dilutive funding to support rapid development and deployment.

Vaccine development is next on the list. In the North West contract manufacturing firm Cobra Biologics has joined with Sweden’s Karolinska Institute in testing Phase I clinical trial candidates for a DNA vaccine. The firm’s CEO Peter Coleman said the project will be funded through a €3 million payment from the EU’s Horizon 2020 R&D programme.

A key programme is being undertaken by Porton Biopharma, based at Porton Down, near Salisbury. The firm is testing various vaccine candidates including an adnovirus pioneered by Oxford University’s famous vaccine research hub, the Jenner Institute. Phil Luton, commercial manager at Porton Biopharma, said: “We are hoping to get initial results quickly. Scaling up, once proven, will take a minimum of six months to create one that is effective and doesn’t exacerbate it.”

In the long-term, SMEs are looking at ways of breaking the chain of infection in future. Back in 1918 troop ships leaving Europe were the main vector that spread the Spanish flu virus worldwide, with terrible consequences.

Today, of course, the distribution of the COVID-19 virus ‘went viral’ via air passenger traffic - first from China to Europe, and then around Europe internally. In future, an effective disinfection and monitoring unit could be effective in preventing a recurrence of an outbreak.

Coronavirus

Bruce Green, a veteran research chemist whose ground-breaking work on antiseptic wipes led to the foundation of Tristel plc, now a £20m turnover AIM-listed company, believes aircraft are central to the problem.

He foresees an urgent requirement for an improved disinfection system for passenger aircraft before/after each flight. Ventilation pipework on aircraft can be coated cumulatively with biofilm after a certain number of flights.

Mr Green remarked: “20 years ago I offered British Airways a ground-based unit that disinfects aircraft very thoroughly, but no sales resulted.” His firm developed a small, portable mist/fog unit for use with chlorine dioxide or peracetic acid, which connected directly to the ventilation of an aircraft on the ground.

It might also be adapted in order to detect pathogens in an aircraft after a flight, alerting authorities to the presence of an infected passenger on board. Of course, such a device could disinfect an aircraft but not the virus carriers on board.

A pathogen detector, however, is fiendishly difficult to produce, says Luton, and not just because ‘every virus is different’. He said: “People who have just caught the virus are ‘viremic’ – the levels of virus are too low to be detected.” Air passengers could be crossing continents days before a viable detector triggered an alert.

Lone inventors have also played their part.

Andrew Turner of Quality Hospital Solutions, second from right (below), has a 10-year track record of supplying innovative designs to the NHS. To help with coronavirus testing, he devised SamplePod, the world’s first test kit bags with an RFID chip printed integrally.

Coronavirus  

This enables samples to be tracked from patient to pathology lab, and hospital if necessary, eliminating the problem of tests being lost among thousands of others.

In a project with 3D printing firm Pragmatic IC, SamplePods will first be used by the NHS pathology lab in Gateshead and it will serve as the main testing hub for the whole of the North of England, said Mr Turner.

The SCI’s Todd says SMEs have encountered other problems: “SMEs have been dismayed to find they are ineligible for the Government’s Business Interruption Loan scheme if they have received more than €200,000 in any ‘State Aid’ funding over the past three years, due to EU rules, which includes any grant from Innovate UK. This could adversely affect thousands of our best smaller companies.”

Dr John Ford, of Enterprise Therapeutics in Sussex, who first highlighted the problem, argued: “There is absolutely no logic to this.”

Once BEIS has got beyond the ‘firefighting’ phase, the SCI Industry forecasts that R&D by UK SMEs will be key to developing novel solutions to many other aspects of the coronavirus crisis.

Since 2003 London-based Gibson Index Ltd has tracked the UK’s best smaller companies, spinouts and startups, now a total of 73,000 SMEs across 56 trade/tech sectors. BEIS, the Dept of International Trade, Dstl, Shell UK and major Universities use it to pinpoint key companies of interest. In November 2019 GI published a short-form book: ‘The UK’s 12 Best Smaller Companies’, and in mid-April 2020 its report: ‘Brexit Boom’, detailing the huge rise in SME exports to non-EU countries since 2016, will be published by the Westminster think-tank Civitas