Harwell Campus Pandemic Pioneer — David Brown

We’re looking at Harwell’s Pandemic Pioneers, the scientists and innovators based at Harwell Campus who are helping us all build back better. Next up in our series is David Brown, Partner at Forty-Two and mastermind & Managing Director for Project MOVE.

“The security guys named him Colin” chuckles David Brown.

A 19 tonne Mercedes Citaro city bus might seem an unlikely recruit in the global battle against Covid.

But according to his creator David Brown, 52 year-old partner at Harwell-based solutions design agency Forty Two, ‘Colin’ might just help change the face of Covid testing and vaccination.

“I was chatting to a friend who runs one of the biggest private bus companies in the south east, and they had all these buses sitting there doing nothing. And I thought ‘can we get these buses back on the road? Create some sort of clinical or medical bays?”

Thus the idea of the Project MOVE clinical bay was born.

“Mobile Treatment Units (MTUs) aren’t anything that haven’t been done before” says Brown. “The NHS uses them all over the place. You’ll know the articulated lorries they use for women’s health, mammograms, parked up in Tesco’s.”

“What we’re doing is the next step up from that. We’re building temporary medical facilities that mean you can convert the bus back. Something that’s easily, rapidly deployable, that’s inexpensive compared to the other solutions, and means the NHS and authorities can be reactive.”

Project MOVE clinical bay

Once the bus itself has been bought or hired ‘Colin’ costs very little to fit out. The ‘kit’ includes plexiglass walls, a generator, power sockets, tables, full staff areas with lockers, a fridge, hand sanitizers, pre-installed curtains — an infrastructure that allows up to three nurses or vaccinators to operate.

“When somebody buys our kit they get all the fixtures and fittings, like a flat pack from Ikea” says Brown. “Then it’s just ‘take railing A and insert into slot B and use screw number C and washer number whatever.’ It’s literally just connecting to the mounting points that are already in the bus. It’s a simple solution, but that’s exactly what it was designed to be.”

‘Colin’ has already successfully treated schoolchildren in Abingdon and Milton Keynes and boasts a growing client list.

Meanwhile his extended vehicular family is growing.

“We also have a smaller Mercedes Sprinter van model” explains Brown. “It’s really a question of which is most suitable for your needs. We’ve even been approached to kit out a double decker and hopefully that will be on the road fairly soon.”

Six million fewer NHS patients were referred to treatment in 2020 than in 2019, and waiting lists are growing ever longer. The NHS Confederation estimates that healthcare services are operating at just 60% capacity as a result of infection control measures — a shortfall Project MOVE’s bus kits are designed to address.

A fully staffed MOVE bus with three bays can provide up to 180 vaccinations per day, whilst the two-person van model can supply 120.

But, according to Brown, it’s not just about patient throughput; there are other unique opportunities.

“One is to reach into BAME communities where they have a low percentage of uptake. You’ve got areas like Tower Hamlets in London for instance where you have lower than average take up. There’s suspicion in these communities, there’s distrust of the government. With a van or bus you can drive into the community and start doing direct outreach, talking to people in the street. You’re not going to get 180 people a day but the point is to be a presence and try and convert these people and get them a vaccine where they weren’t going to get one before.”

The other, says Brown, is rural communities. According to recent figures more than five million people in England alone live more than an hour by public transport from their nearest vaccination centre.

“You’ve got a lot of older people in rural communities and villages, maybe with complex health issues, they’ve been invited to have a vaccine but have no way to get into town. Maybe one bus a day in each direction, so they’d have to sit on a park bench and do nothing all day. So they’re going: ‘OK if I stay locked in at home I won’t have to worry and I won’t get the vaccine.’”

“Instead you could just take a bus or a van and drive it into a small village, you can say ‘look, we’re here, come and get it.’ We can pick up those folks who are falling through the cracks.”

“Another good use case is community pharmacy. In my local village they have a single pharmacy, but no room to give vaccines. But if they had a van it would provide the space they need, they could literally park it up front. Or go in with four or six other pharmacies, split the cost between them, buy the kit, lease the van, and every day it goes to a different pharmacy. It could pay for itself in a month.”

Brown, a former behavioural targeting analyst who admits he has ‘a lot to answer for’ in his former career, foresees a modular, flexible future for the concept.

“We already have an office in Barcelona — they have the same issues, remote villages, remote areas, we’re hoping to make some connections.”

And the vision goes further.

“Because the kits are really quick to deploy we’ve started to toy with the idea of going to the Red Cross. I’ve trained with the Red Cross, I know exactly how they roll out. When you get the second wave they’ve still got massive problems. Maybe we can provide inexpensive kits that can be deployed into existing buses, providing temporary medical areas.”

“Or it could be mental health. Reaching into homeless communities. If you can provide an inexpensive way to reach directly into a community that’s only going to help.”

So is this all driven by profit or philanthropy?

“It’s not about money at all. We’re essentially operating at cost, for now. I just want to do my little bit” says Brown.

David is just one of our Pandemic Pioneers working at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus.

Harwell Campus is a unique ecosystem, with more than 200 companies, organisations and institutions across life sciences, space and energy all within walking distance of each other. This closeness allows collaboration, and cross fertilisation of ideas which has been made possible by the culture that exists on Campus.