H&H interview: former dressage star helping the fight against Covid-19 Wayne Channon *H&H Plus*

  • He’s a former dressage star who is fighting to rid the world of Covid-19 – the biotechnology chairman chats to Polly Bryan about the race to develop a vaccine

    Wayne Channon boasts a unique CV. An entrepreneur specialising in life sciences, and chairman of three innovative companies, he has also represented Britain in dressage on a number of occasions, including the 2005 European Championships, 2006 World Equestrian Games (WEG) and 2007 World Cup Final. And now, Wayne is hoping to make another huge addition to his list of achievements – a solution to the devastating coronavirus pandemic.

    As chairman of the biotechnology company Stabilitech Biopharma, Wayne and his team are currently at the forefront of the most urgent public health project of a generation – the development of a vital vaccine to protect against Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has rampaged across the globe in the past three months.

    On the day of our interview in early April – conducted remotely under the social distancing rules of the UK lockdown – Wayne estimates that his company’s vaccine could be widely available to the UK public in capsule form, before the end of 2020.

    “There is only one way out of this pandemic – creating what is known as herd immunity. There are two techniques to achieve that,” says Wayne. “One is allowing enough people to be infected by the disease, which is dangerous, and the other is via a vaccine.”

    The challenges involved in creating such a vaccine, that can be manufactured and distributed as widely as required to protect an entire population against this novel virus, are vast. But, in aiming to produce it in capsule form, Wayne is confident that Stabilitech’s unique approach may hold the key.

    “Many companies have the ability to create a harmless sub-unit version of the virus that would provide a person with immunity, but usually that harmless virus has to be frozen at around -80°C, making it challenging logistically to get out to the world. And because it needs to be injected, it only targets systemic immunity [the blood-based immune system],” Wayne explains.

    “What we do is give thermal stability to the vaccine, which enables us to freeze-dry it into a powder and put it in a capsule, so it can be ingested and reach a person’s gut, resulting in a mucosal immune response. This is so important, because you catch Covid-19 via your mucosal cells in the mouth, nose, throat and even the eyes, and that is where it stays; it isn’t a systemic infection.”

    By creating a vaccine that does not need to be administered by a healthcare professional, Wayne hopes that huge numbers of people can be vaccinated rapidly, in line with the speed of production. He likens it to the easy shipping of a drug such as aspirin, and predicts that his oral vaccine could even be made available to the public via Amazon.

    “We are probably six weeks away from the first human trials. We are very confident at this stage, but as scientists it’s not enough to be confident – we have to prove it works, and prove its safety,” he says.

    Having previously been working with the zika virus, Wayne’s team switched their focus to the novel coronavirus in January, working around the clock to deliver this oral vaccine.

    “I was in San Francisco at a conference in January when this was just starting to kick off in China. Dr Jeff Drew, our chief scientific officer – the genius behind all this – called and said we’d better get to work on the coronavirus. Fortunately Chinese scientists had published the full genome sequence of the virus, and since then we’ve been solely focused on this.

    “We are self-funding the development of the vaccine,” Wayne adds, explaining that he hopes the UK government will step in to help pay for the “enormous” cost of putting the vaccine through clinical trials.

    “So far the money given over to vaccines and diagnostics has gone to academic institutions, and while it’s great to back the work Oxford University and Imperial College London are doing, academia doesn’t own all the great ideas, and they can’t do exactly what we do. But I have to take my hat off to the government. We have had several calls with the new vaccine taskforce that has been set up, and we hope they’ll come on board with us. They need to be backing more than one horse!”

     Juggling dressage with science career

    Amazingly, Wayne still finds time for his horses, riding most mornings. He currently has six horses at home in East Sussex, including his retired international grand prix horses, the Dutch-bred Ferro son Lorenzo CH, now aged 27, and Kasjmir, aged 28. Then there is the 16-year-old approved KWPN stallion Zenon, by Rousseau, and his 11-year-old son, Emmerik.

    Then again, juggling dressage with his science career is nothing new for Wayne.

    “I’ve never earned my living from dressage,” he explains. “I used to run a technology business, which went through a bad patch in 1990, and as a bit of light relief I decided then to get back into riding, which I had done as a child. I got hooked on it, and from 1990 onwards I’ve always been riding.

    “I always ride first thing in the morning, then by 9am I’m at work in my day job. Other riders do the same, but they might spend the rest of the day teaching.”

    In 2004 Wayne and his wife Debra relocated to Belgium to help further his international dressage career, and the years that followed the move were particularly fruitful for Wayne and Lorenzo, as they racked up a number of good results on the European circuit. In 2005 he rode alongside Carl Hester, Emma Hindle and Fiona Bigwood to take team fifth at the Europeans in Hagen, Germany, and returned to the team for WEG the following year alongside Emma, Laura Bechtolsheimer (now Tomlinson) and Sandy Phillips.

    The Channons’ move back to Sussex in 2010 coincided with the retirement of Lorenzo, but Wayne has remained heavily involved in dressage through his role as secretary general of the International Dressage Riders Club (IDRC), a position he has now held for 11 years. While science may be Wayne’s business, and dressage his passion, behind his success in the sport is an approach that stems from his scientific background.

    “I love dressage, training horses, being with horses – there is nothing more pleasurable,” says Wayne. “It’s a bit like business – you need to be methodical and have a clear strategy, while always respecting a sentient being which doesn’t always do what you want it to.

    “I’ll always remember a presentation by Andrew McLean at the Global Dressage Forum where he introduced a more scientific approach that was quite different to the classical training I’d followed until then. He presented a much broader concept of stimulus and response, and the binary effect of releasing an aid, or a cue, and turning it on and off. This theory is now used in the German National Riding School, and it makes for a beautiful way of riding, as well as helping with almost any training problem.”

    As an example, Wayne explains how he helped Lorenzo overcome a chronic issue with falling on to his shoulder in left half-pass. Starting on the ground, he taught the black stallion to lift his foreleg when touched on the shoulder with a whip, progressing through walk and trot until he could apply it to the half-pass, teaching Lorenzo to lift his shoulder at the correct moment, instead of tipping his weight on to it.

    “It’s a reductionist science technique, breaking everything down into elements; building blocks that you can then do something with,” explains Wayne.

    Revolutionise the judging system

    This same theory is also behind Wayne’s efforts in his IDRC role to revolutionise the current judging system by introducing a specific code of points. The concept has been widely debated among top riders and judges, and a draft put forward by the FEI dressage judges’ working group is currently under consideration.

    “We need to move faster with a code of points. Dressage is slow to adopt these sorts of things – other comparable sports have done it,” says Wayne. “Dressage judging is susceptible to natural biases, so we need to find a way to be more consistent with marking, not to lose the beauty of the sport, but by systemising the scoring.

    “There are so many things judges are looking at within each movement. You can break down the quality of the canter into components – the cadence, the elevation of the forelegs, the engagement of the hindlegs and so on – and with a code of points, judges can break down the mark they give accordingly.

    “Or look at the piaffe – how should judges mark a perfect piaffe in which only 11 steps are shown, rather than the specified 12 to 15? If the marking in these situations can be systemised, it will help judges be consistent, and help riders make calculated decisions in the arena.”

    While still thoroughly invested in his beloved sport, Wayne’s own competition days are behind him – or so he says.

    “I have an 11-year-old at home who is training at grand prix now – he’s my little superstar, though I have no real intention of competing him,” he tells me. “I do fancy it now and again, especially after seeing fantastic performances by our current top riders, but you have to dedicate so much of your life to it.”

    Right now, Wayne’s focus is firmly on his place in the worldwide race to deliver an effective vaccine against Covid-19. This is a competition like no other, the opponent being a virus that behaves in ways no one fully understands. For every part of the world, the future is shrouded in uncertainty, but Wayne might be the best hope we have of emerging the other side.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 April 2020