Microbiology diagnostic framework aligns expert suppliers for urgent Public Health England work ©Vicki Couchman
Microbiology diagnostic framework aligns expert suppliers for urgent Public Health England work ©Vicki Couchman

Lifesaving framework will speed disease treatment

25 November 2016

A new procurement framework focuses on speed and expertise to help scientists fight public health emergencies such as an outbreak of Ebola or Zika.

The new public health microbiology diagnostic framework will enable flexibility, speed and innovation in the development of cutting edge diagnostics and treatment tools, according to Public Health England (PHE), the statutory body that exists to improve the nation’s health.  PHE also expects it to generate savings on regular spend.

The Ebola outbreak was one of the catalysts for PHE to set up the new framework. When it broke out in 2014 there was no up-to-date test for the disease and no way to track it, said Imran Yasin, public health microbiology framework & SRM lead at PHE.

PHE develops new tests and treatments for infectious diseases, ranging from the common flu to Ebola and the Zika virus, which requires close collaboration with many of its suppliers to develop reliable tests on existing equipment, said Yasin.

“You need to know that there are a group of suppliers that would be willing to work with us. Because actually there’s a risk for both parties there because at that point you’re handling Ebola samples on equipment that hasn’t used it before,” he said.

It saw the need for a framework with a broad range of suppliers working on different technologies, and which could be used by PHE if a potential public health risk emerges to find suppliers that have a solution.

“It’s about being able to say: ‘We’ve got this problem, we need to develop a solution and we need to do it quite quickly because we need a test for this like now’,” he said.

The framework is divided into two lots. Lot one operates like a standard framework and facilitates the purchase of specialist chemicals and lab equipment, including robotics and analysers. This went live in September, with 59 suppliers.

Lot two, which is due to go live early December, will host a pool of potential collaborators who can work with PHE to develop new tests and, importantly, be called on at short notice in a public health emergency. 

The goods and services purchased through the full framework is anticipated to be worth a total of £120m over the four years of the contracts, said PHE. 

Before the framework was set up, there was a fragmented approach to collaboration, and suppliers were approached informally and on a relationship basis. The suppliers responded with speed, and the contracts were varied accordingly. “I think literally at that point [during the Ebola crisis] it was very much about: ‘We just need to do it and then figure out on what basis afterwards’, because it’s very reactive,” said Yasin.

“Talking to colleagues it was just lots of different conversations with lots of different suppliers, and those that were willing to work with us we worked with… We didn’t have a speedy mechanism on which to award contracts or agree deals.”

Not only will the new framework give structure in the next healthcare crisis, but it could also help researchers have a better idea of what tools exist that could help, said Yasin.

Buy in from the scientists working at PHE was vital to creating the frameworks. A staged process of communication and consensus building with stakeholders was implemented, said Nilesh Pattani, head of scientific procurement at PHE.

On one hand, scientists are unwilling to change from equipment they knew worked, said Pattani. However, he said:  “On the same hand they’re very, very technology driven. So if they can see a better product and a better service, then they know they want it.” 

To put the framework together, they worked with the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, the diagnostics trade association, and made sure many of the industry’s key suppliers were included, he said.

As well as educating scientist about the importance, and benefits, of procurement, Pattani also made changes to the way his team worked, including changing the way procurement talent is recruited. “It’s not just about setting the framework up, this is about the legacy of leaving a really good, high performing procurement team,” he said. The framework is now available to other public sector bodies working in public health.

Pattani also makes sure his team is skilled in sciences, and biomedical scientists and PhD graduates are part of the category leads. “To get on side with the business, we almost needed my team to reflect what the business looks like,” he said.

Professor Derrick Crook, director of the National Infection Service at PHE said this is the first framework of its kind. “[It] was not without its challenges. However, the end result that incorporates a wide range of biotechnology firms will give PHE access to the latest technology to combat threats such as antimicrobial resistance”.

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