Britain is less prepared for a pandemic now than it was three years ago, thanks to the sale of a key vaccine manufacturing plant, leading scientists have warned.
Professor Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute, which was responsible for the Oxford Covid vaccine, said that the recent loss of the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) in Oxfordshire, which had been created to respond to outbreaks, showed that the UK had been going backwards since the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s less that we haven’t learnt the lessons — we’re aware of the lessons,” he said. “We just haven’t taken the action that’s required from those lessons. And we’re looking at our toes again, rather than doing something about it.”
The £200 million tax-payer-funded facility was set up as a not-for-profit company, partly in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. It was intended to help vaccines from a diverse set of technologies into manufacturing and quickly increase production during pandemics.
When the coronavirus struck, the facility was repurposed with a view to mass manufacture but, now that the vaccines are being made by pharmaceutical companies, it has been sold to a US company. This means that the UK is once again without a flexible manufacturing facility that can respond to outbreaks. The government has argued that the sale helps to strengthen UK biotherapeutics.
Hill said the loss of control was baffling. “The man in the street thinks the UK is really good at this, thanks to all the publicity about what we did during the pandemic, and probably feels we’re in a relatively good place. Well, we’re actually in a worse place than we were three years ago.”
Professor Robin Shattock, from Imperial College, a former chair of VMIC’s board of directors, said he thought the decision to sell had been made on cost grounds. “Suddenly they were worried that they’d built this big white elephant, and they’d be on the hook for the next umpteen years with it ticking over. It probably would have cost £5 million a year — pretty small in defence terms, if you think of it as defence against infectious diseases rather than military defence. But I think that ship has sailed.”
The government recently announced a ten-year partnership with Moderna, the mRNA vaccines manufacturer, to include vaccine manufacturing.
Professor Sandy Douglas, from the Jenner Institute, said that in the early stages of an outbreak, when it is not clear that it will spread, it is not enough to rely on pharmaceutical companies. In particular, he said, a system would be needed that took action when “there’s a 10 per cent chance it’s going to be a problem for the UK, rather than waiting until it’s a 99 per cent chance”.
He also said that to combat unknown future threats the UK needed to rely on more than mRNA. “In 2020, everyone was saying never again,” he said. “But entirely predictably, we’re back in the position where a pandemic is something which is probably not going to happen in this parliament and so it’s off the priority list.
“It’s not really clear to me whether the UK has any system for thinking about emergency commissioning. Is there someone in government who would say, ‘Hello, Oxford, we’d like you to make a vaccine against this quickly?’ I’ve no idea.”
Kate Bingham, former head of the Vaccines Task Force, said she still hoped that the government would seek an alternative mechanism. “The sale of VMIC was a definite loss. But I’m still hoping the government listens to these serious concerns and doubles down on advanced biomanufacturing,” she said. “The chancellor said that the UK life sciences sector could shape and define this century. To do this, we need to reinstate our commitment to working with innovators to scale-up and test new vaccines and biotherapeutics which needs leadership and funds.”