When the Financial Times (Nov. 30, 2021) heads an article: SALE OF UK VACCINE CENTRE SMACKS OF SHORT MEMORY SYNDROME, you know the government has made yet another calamitous decision about our NHS, our public research resources and our health. After reading this article, please sign this petition: https://weownit.org.uk/act-now/stop-vaccine-research-centre-sell-off
When Covid-19 hit, what had been called a “new front line in the nation’s defence against global pandemic threats” was still a muddy building site outside Oxford.
It had been tough to get the Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre signed off in 2018. After all, spending £66m of public money on a centre to research diseases that generally affect other people wasn’t a universally popular idea.
As John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford, told the Times in 2020: “People said, ‘Well there isn’t really going to be a pandemic . . . And now everybody’s going, ‘Oh my god, why didn’t we build it last year?’”
The pandemic had exposed something that everyone in the life sciences world already knew: the UK didn’t have any large-scale vaccine manufacturing capability. “You’ll have to go to Belgium and plead with them,” one US pharma executive said to me in May 2020, referring to GSK’s plants there. “Promise to buy lots of waffles”.
Memories can be short, particularly when everyone wants to put the panic of 2020 behind them. But you have to wonder what the half-life is on the value of pandemic preparedness upon hearing that the “front line” of the UK’s defences is up for sale, before it has even been finished and while everyone awaits news on whether Omicron will usher in a new round of redeveloping, retesting and rejabbing.
In the event, of course, the government didn’t buy waffles. It put more than £200m into bringing forward the development of VMIC, which was conceived as an innovation centre to be finished in 2023, aiming to expand it into something that could churn out 70m doses within six months.
More money went into a rapid response unit at Oxford BioMedica, because the main facility wouldn’t be ready in time. A large team also began patching and stitching together the pockets of biologic manufacturing capacity the UK did have, desperately trying to secure commitments from contract manufacturing organisations dotted around the country such as CPI, Cobra and Fujifilm before someone else did.
What is true now is that VMIC, which is an independent non-profit, needs to be kept going, kept current and kept in use for it to be ready for the next challenge. That could mean an industry partner such as a CMO, that can use the facility for other biologic or vaccine manufacturing rather than letting it languish, and has the expertise to switch from one job to another at short notice — something the pandemic demonstrated is really rather hard.
What’s alarming is the suggestion — made to my colleagues by one official — that the need for VMIC’s surge capacity has passed; that the private sector response had obviated the requirement for this contingency. For a start, Sarah Gilbert, who developed the AstraZeneca jab, has said that VMIC would have been “game-changing” for the Oxford team in making larger stocks for clinical trials rather than working with multiple manufacturers.
Third-party capacity isn’t guaranteed to stay in place as companies and priorities evolve. Nor can it always be effectively used: Kate Bingham, the venture capitalist who led the vaccine task force, warned last week that only a wartime mentality enabled her to cut through public sector bureaucracy, process and inertia to strike private sector deals. Even while we’re still grappling with Covid, “there is a gap in the strategic thinking” said one person involved in pandemic preparedness in terms of the skills and relationships needed for future crises.
The government said it was “working closely with VMIC, which is a private company, and others to ensure the UK retains our strong domestic vaccine manufacturing capability”.
But pretending this is a private process won’t wash for an institution almost entirely public funded and where the Treasury stands to recoup some of its investment on a sale.
Should the government take a stake in VMIC as part of the sale? Maybe. It should certainly have safeguards in the form of contractual agreements or so-called march-in rights to ensure that the facility can be used as needed in future emergencies.
In any case, this government will from January have powers to interfere in an almost-limitless universe of deals based on an expansive view of national security. One lasting memory from 2020 should be that pandemic preparedness clearly falls under that banner.
Veteran NHS campaigner and researcher, Dr John Lister, gives a lucid commentary on why this is sell-off is such an extraordinary mistake. See: https://lowdownnhs.info/funding/vaccine-centre-sell-off/