Divya Chadha Manek was among the Covid-19 response champions honoured in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list with an for services to government during the Covid-19 Response.
As Business Development and Marketing Director at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network, Divya is at the forefront of the UK’s clinical research initiatives. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, in March 2020 Divya was seconded to the Government’s Vaccine’s Taskforce (VTF) as the Clinical Trials Lead responsible for overseeing the UK Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials portfolio.
With her renowned expertise and contacts across the global life sciences industry, she was tasked with supporting pharmaceutical companies to quickly generate the evidence required to establish the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, by coordinating the rapid setup and delivery of large-scale vaccine trials through the .
Born and brought up in India, Divya initially embarked on a sporting career - representing India in swimming at Asian level, and also rowing for India at Asian level and at the World Championships. She left India at the age of 18, moving to the UK to complete a degree in Psychology at Royal Holloway and continued rowing for the University of London. Following this, Divya was awarded an India academic scholarship to study a Masters of Clinical Research at University of Birmingham.
She has worked in clinical research for over 14 years within a variety of roles, having begun her career with the NIHR in 2007. Over this time, Divya has established a successful track record of increasing the volume of commercial clinical research delivered within the NHS by building relationships with the global life sciences industry.
In this interview, she reflects on her honour, the journey that led her to it and her continued mission to fight against disease.
What does it mean to be honoured for your work, which continues to make an impact in our fight against the pandemic?
Firstly, I am truly deeply honoured. Professionally this honour recognises that Covid vaccines research has been a huge success story for the UK. I have worked for the NIHR for over 14 years because I am truly passionate about the importance of clinical research and how it supports society.
To me, this honour is recognising not just me, but everyone involved in the success of UK vaccine research – the half a million people who signed up to the vaccine research registry, and the tens of thousands who took part in vital Covid-19 vaccine trials here in the UK. But also the amazing clinical experts, the incredible research workforce and the NHS staff who have worked tirelessly to deliver the trials in the middle of a pandemic.
The honour feels like a real recognition and nod to clinical research, which may not always get the spotlight it truly deserves. It's fantastic to receive this “thank you” from the Queen!
The last year has been an incredibly challenging time for me - like so many other people – juggling the pressures of this job while looking after two children under the age of five at home has not been easy. When I left India for the UK at the age of 18, my father gave me a flight ticket, put £500 pounds in my pocket and said to me: ‘Be good, do good and do something amazing that you get to meet the Queen’. Sadly, I lost my father last year, but this honour truly feels like I have done good on his behalf. So, thank you so much for this honour.
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What were the key challenges you faced in your role coordinating clinical trials for Covid-19 vaccines?
There were so many! Like a swan, I was constantly paddling furiously underneath it all. Everyday bought a new challenge. The biggest challenge and also achievement, was to bring all the stakeholders together.
The research sites, clinical experts, NIHR, MHRA, HRA and the life sciences companies, both the manufacturers and Clinical Research Organisations (CROs). Everyone was working to a single aim, but we were working at 200 miles an hour. Keeping everyone on the same page, singing the same song with the right notes – that was a challenge.
But collectively, we managed to achieve it beautifully.
How would you categorise the UK in its clinical research role, during this pandemic and beyond?
The UK has played a major role in Covid-19 vaccine research and development – in no small part due to our world-leading research infrastructure, with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) working closely with frontline colleagues and clinicians across our National Health Service (NHS).
Not to mention our incredible scientific and academic community – for example the team at University of Oxford who came up with the CHDOX vaccine in a matter of days after receiving the genetic code of the virus.
It is the spirit of collaboration coupled with our world leading facilities, experts and infrastructure, which makes the UK such an amazing place to deliver clinical research.
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What are some of your key goals in your relatively new role at the NIHR?
The key role is to achieve exactly what the UK has delivered for Covid-19 vaccine research across all other disease areas.
A key objective is working with the global life sciences industry to bring more clinical research of innovative medicines, treatments, diagnostics, devices to the UK. To provide more opportunities for us in the UK, to take part in clinical research. Ensuring the UK continues to be seen as a destination of choice to deliver clinical research is my priority.
Please tell us about your India connect.
I was born and brought up in Calcutta and I am extremely proud of my heritage and my Indian roots. My father is of Punjabi origin and my mother is of Bengali origin. I completed my full schooling from La Martiniere for Girls [Kolkata, West Bengal]. I have represented India in swimming at the Asian level and also represented India in Rowing at the Asian and world level during my schooling years.