Government move to sell vaccine infrastructure 'should be reversed'

‘It’s like defunding fire brigades after extinguishing a major blaze’: Experts slam Government’s ‘baffling’ decision to sell major vaccine factory in Oxford in wake of Covid pandemic

  • Oxford-based vaccine making site funded by £215million is set to be sold  
  • Scientists say move is akin to defunding fire brigade after extinguishing blaze
  • The centre said sale is due to No10 securing enough vaccine doses elsewhere 

A Government-backed plan to sell off a vaccine factory is ‘baffling’ and ‘should be reversed’, scientists have said.

The Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre, in Oxford, was built in 2018 with the goal of developing vaccines to protect against future pandemics, jab shortages and price wars.

But the facility, funded by £215million of taxpayer cash, is set to be sold. 

Researchers from leading UK universities hit out at plans to sell the 74,000 square metre facility, claiming the move is short-sighted.

They said the centre is needed to protect against future pandemics by supporting vaccine research, development and manufacturing.

Selling the centre makes little strategic, public health or economical sense and will damage the UK’s reputation, according to the scientists. 

‘The loss of the VMIC at this time is arguably akin to defunding fire brigades after extinguishing a major blaze,’ they wrote in the British Medical Journal.

The vaccine-making centre had received around £215million in Government funding by March and is expected to produce 70million doses in as little as four months once up and running

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announced in 2018 that the VMIC would be the UK’s first ever dedicated jab-making site.

Its purpose would be to secure the availability of vaccines and ensure the nation was prepared in the face of a pandemic.

Ministers originally pledged to invest £66million in the centre, which was tasked with working to develop Ebola and Lassa fever vaccines before the Covid pandemic took off. 

WHAT IS THE VACCINE MANUFACTURING AND INNOVATION CENTRE?

The Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre was billed as a a manufacturing site to ‘lead the fight against deadly disease’ when it was first announced in 2018.

But just four years on, the VMIC in Oxford has already been sold.

US pharmaceutical giant Catalent is rumoured to be in talks to buy the site, which was founded by leading UK universities and received £215million of taxpayer cash. 

Ministers originally pledged to invest £66million in the centre, which was tasked with working to develop Ebola and Lassa fever vaccines before the Covid pandemic took off. 

But its construction was fast-tracked to help in the fight against Covid.

It was due to open in 2022 and churn out 70million doses in as little as four months — nearly 600,000 doses a day.

But rather than relying on the VMIC to develop jabs, the UK bought 114million doses of Covid vaccines in December.

And health chiefs insisted this week that the UK has sufficient vaccine supply for the planned spring and autumn 2022 booster rollouts.

In its annual financial accounts, the VIMC revealed the Government’s need for extra manufacturing capacity has reduced, while the cost of completing the centre ‘have increased beyond those envisaged’. 

But it had been granted £215million in funding by March and its construction was fast-tracked to help in the fight against Covid. 

The centre, which is yet to be fully functioning, was set to churn out 70million vaccines over four months — nearly 600,000 doses a day — after it was complete. 

But rather than relying on the VMIC to develop jabs, the UK bought 114million doses of Covid vaccines in December.

And health chiefs insisted this week that the UK has sufficient vaccine supply for the planned spring and autumn 2022 booster rollouts.

In its annual financial accounts, the VIMC revealed the Government’s need for extra manufacturing capacity has reduced, while the cost of completing the centre ‘have increased beyond those envisaged’.

The facility was founded by the University of Oxford, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London, while it received funding from pharmaceutical giants Johnson and Johnson, Merck and and Cytiva. 

The VMIC put itself up for sale at the end of last year and is now ‘in the process of entering into a period of exclusivity with a preferred party, following a broader sales process’, the centre told MailOnline.

It expects the deal to be completed in March but declined to provide further details of the sale.

Pharmaceutical companies Oxford BioMedica, Fujifilm and Lonza were linked with purchasing the facility, but The Telegraph reported that New Jersey-based Catalent has entered exclusive talks to buy the centre.

MailOnline has approached Catalent for comment. 

Sources told the newspaper that ministers had become concerned with the soaring costs needed to finish the facility, which may have been unable to open unless bought by a private company.

Writing in The BMJ, scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and University College Dublin said the Government’s decision ‘on vital vaccine infrastructure is baffling and should be reversed’.

They questioned whether selling the facility was making the best use of public money and neglecting biological threats.

The scientists accused the Government of ‘distancing itself from the centre and its sale, with little explanation or transparency’.

And the bidders linked with the deal are ‘relative unknowns in vaccine development’.

Having the capabilities for vaccine research, development and manufacturing should be the ‘cornerstone of any national security strategy’, the group said.

They noted that the science behind Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA Covid jabs ‘took decades’ to develop and future pandemics may require different vaccine technology.

Long-term funding is needed to support vaccine development in the UK and it is ‘naive’ to expect drug companies to make necessary investments alone, the scientists said.

A lack of political planning has historically hampered vaccine progress by hampering manufacturing hubs from gaining investment, retaining staff and responding to emerging threats, they said.

The VMIC was a signal of ‘renewed political ambition and confidence in the UK’s vaccine infrastructure’, according to the scientists.

And the move to sell it makes ‘little sense’ economically, they said. ‘Revenues from the sale of VMIC will have little or no effect on the biggest rise in national debt since the second world war,’ their letter states.

‘Selling the VMIC signals a lack of government commitment that will deter investors who may wish to build British biomedical capacity — an important goal of post-Brexit strategic planning,’ the scientists said.

‘Since the decision to sell off the VMIC during a pandemic seems difficult to justify on strategic, public health, economic, or reputational grounds, it would be foolhardy to proceed with it.’

Ministers and the public should ‘convince those in charge to protect what could well become a cornerstone of British pandemic preparedness and bioindustrial infrastructure’, they said.

The letter was penned by Dr Rebecca Glover, a health services expert at the LSHTM and Dr Adam Roberts, an antimicrobial chemotherapy and resistance researcher at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Dr Andrew Singer, from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and Dr Claas Kirchhelle, an antibiotic and vaccine expert at University College Dublin, also signed the letter.

A VMIC spokesperson said: ‘We remain committed towards a deal that brings continued vaccine manufacturing capability to the UK.

‘We cannot add any further information at this point as the details are commercially sensitive to the interested party.’

A BEIS spokesperson said: ‘The Government isn’t selling the facility. VMIC Limited is a private company and has always been a private company.

‘We are supporting VMIC Limited’s board following their decision to pursue a sale of their company. In that process, the Government’s primary objective is to ensure UK retains a strong, domestic vaccine manufacturing capability.’ 

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