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Richard Sykes: The Glaxoman & Vaccine king

Richard Sykes is a man of great significance to not only the reformation of the Wellcome Trust in the mid-90s but also for his supreme position in the official UK vaccine roll out during Covid-19. In 2020, Sykes led an independent review of the workings of the Vaccine Taskforce, and on 14 June 2021, Sykes was appointed chair of the Vaccine Taskforce. In this position, he became responsible for overseeing the delivery of the UK's Covid-19 vaccines, including the preparation for further booster programmes.


Sir Richard Brook Sykes was born 7 August 1942, near Huddersfield in west Yorkshire to Eric and Muriel Sykes. He would attend Royds Hall Grammar School, the same school former-prime minister Harold Wilson had once attended. Even before he finished his initial schooling, Sykes had found work as a technician in a pathology laboratory. Sykes would go on to be awarded his PhD in Microbial Biochemistry from Bristol University and then, in 1972, he was recruited by Glaxo Research Ltd as Head of its Antibiotic Research Unit. The young Sykes would later move across the pond in 1979 to work for the Squibb Institute for Medical Research based in Princeton, New Jersey, where -- between 1983 and 1986 -- he was Vice-President of Infectious and Metabolic Diseases. In 1986, he rejoined Glaxo in the UK as Deputy Chief Executive of Glaxo Group Research Ltd and also became the Group Research and Development Director of Glaxo plc. A year later, he became Chairman as well as being Chief Executive of Glaxo Group Research Limited. In March 1993, he was appointed Deputy Chairman & Chief Executive of Glaxo plc.


In 1995, the recently knighted Sir Richard Sykes would engineer the merger between Glaxo and Wellcome plc, which would also see the default creation of a new envisioning of the original Wellcome Trust established as an independent charitable foundation. He would then become Chairman & Chief Executive of GlaxoWellcome plc in May 1997, stepping aside the following October. GlaxoWellcome would subsequently merge with SmithKline Beecham to form GlaxoSmithKline plc in 2000.


In 1997, Richard Sykes, who insisted on being called Dr. Sykes, would publish various papers contemplating the future of the pharmaceutical industry and, the following year, would write a paper on how to be a “modern pharmaceutical company.” In this paper, he argued for companies to share their scientific research data with each other. Between 1997 to 2008, Sykes was also classed as a Senior Independent Director for Rio Tinto plc, the Anglo-Australian multinational and world's second-largest metals and mining corporation, where Sykes served as chairman of the Remuneration committee. Sykes would still be serving as a non-executive director for Rio Tinto in 2003 when Sir John Kerr was also appointed as a non-executive director. Kerr had been a member of the UK Diplomatic Service for 36 years, and its head from 1997 to 2002.


On 20 May 2002, Sykes would stand down as Chairman of GlaxoSmithKline plc at their annual general meeting (AGM) to concentrate on his role as Rector of Imperial College London. In 2003, Imperial College faced accusations of forgery in a prestigious medical journal after it was discovered that a member of their staff forged the signatures of seven co-authors on a paper. Sykes would lead the investigation after the New England Journal of Medicine was forced to make the rare step of publishing a retraction. From 2008, Sykes became Chairman of NHS London. He stepped down in May 2010 over the decision of the Cameron government to stop the planned reorganisation of healthcare in London. Over the next decade, he would take up various board positions at places such as the Eurasian National Resources Corp, Lonza Group (a company which later partnered with Moderna to manufacture and produce their Covid-19 vaccine), NetScientific plc, the Economic Development Board International, PDS Biotechnology as well as others. From 2012 until 2018, he was the Chairman of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trusts. At this time, he also held such positions as Chairman of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the Chancellor of Brunel University.


In December 2020, Matt Hancock MP would appoint Sir Richard to conduct an independent review of the strategy and goals of the Vaccine Taskforce. He would later be made Chair of the UK Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, a group which would be responsible for achieving three main objectives:


  1. Secure access to the most promising vaccine/s for the UK population as quickly as possible;

  2. Make provision for international distribution of vaccines so that the benefits of UK leadership and investment in this area could be widely shared; and

  3. Support the UK’s Industrial Strategy by establishing a long-term vaccine strategy to prepare the UK for future pandemics.


In June 2021, Richards Sykes was given the overall responsibility for “overseeing the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccination programme, including preparations for booster programmes and encouraging vaccine innovation in the UK”.


In a UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy end of year report entitled: UK Vaccine Taskforce 2020 Achievements and Future Strategy, Sykes writes within the introduction:


“In 1998 as CEO of GlaxoWellcome, I was instrumental in establishing and funding a three-way collaboration between Government, Industry and Academia designed to carry out the basic research necessary to develop and produce new vaccines. At the centre of the collaboration was a new research institute named after the British vaccine pioneer, Edward Jenner and officially opened by Peter Mandelson the Secretary of State for Industry. GlaxoWellcome made a commitment to fund the Institute for 10 years following which it struggled to obtain Government support and eventually ended up at Oxford University. So I am extremely supportive of renewed approaches to grow and strengthen the UK vaccine industry.”


Richard Sykes had been put in charge of the Vaccine Taskforce to make sure things were done quickly, something he claims he helped achieve in the aforementioned report where he states, “The number one priority for any vaccine remains its safety. In the normal course of events developing a new and novel vaccine from research to market would take a minimum of 10 years. In the present climate the combination of VTF leadership and private sector research and development has reduced this timescale dramatically.” In this rather self-absorbed example of Sykes’ out-of-touch rhetoric, he claims that the fast roll-out of the experimental vaccines are due to a “combination of VFT leadership and private sector research and development”, rather than a decimation of usual safety protocols.


One other very important note to come out of Sykes VT­F is that he had managed to create what he would describe as “several world class clinical assets which support the development of COVID-19 vaccines but will prove invaluable for future pandemics.” These assets included the NHS Citizen Registry which had over 360,000 people registered by December 2020.


Sir Richard Sykes had been instrumental in engineering the creation of the modern incarnations of the Wellcome Trust and GlaxoSmithKline. In the 1990s, as he was beginning his reformation of the two major pharmaceutical companies, Sykes had also a very defined vision of what he wanted to do. Sykes was not alone in enacting his vision for the future. His colleague in the early 90s, Roy Anderson, who was then governor and director of the Wellcome Trust, would help Sykes to create what we are seeing and experiencing today.


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