With Britain days away from declaring its first national lockdown, Downing Street advisers were growing restless.
In America, the first human trials for a Covid jab had already kicked off. Experts said a fully formed vaccine could take 18 months to develop and, privately, some were optimistic it may come sooner.
In the UK, however, Government advisers were anxious. “We need to be able to make vaccines,” Sir John Bell told the Telegraph at the time. “And nobody has thought about it very hard.”
In the two years since, ministers have been racing to rectify this. The spread of Covid spurred the Government to funnel more than £200m of taxpayer cash into a new Vaccine Manufacturing & Innovation Centre (VMIC), with hopes of bringing forward the opening date to summer 2021 and delivering millions of doses to get the population jabbed.
Although the money went in, jabs have yet to come out. More than six months after it was slated to open, VMIC’s doors are still closed. Its role in beating Covid has been non-existent.
Now, the mega-vaccine plant is up for sale – a step insiders say was unavoidable. “Without a buyer, VMIC would fail or it wouldn’t open,” one Westminster source says.
Questions are swirling over whether such a use of taxpayer cash was even necessary at all. Britain was, after all, among the quickest to get its vaccination drives going during the pandemic, with every adult offered a first jab by mid-July last year.
Supply squeezes at the start of last year were relatively short-lived, while manufacturing sites in Oxford and Keele were brought online to help make much-needed doses. The Oxford site was formally opened in early 2021, while the one at Keele University was upgraded in 2020.
Yet, behind the scenes, it was a race to get everything online. Matthew Duchars, who headed up VMIC until late last year, says the UK “was very diligently adaptive in the way that we dealt with the manufacturing shortfall, and we were able to plug that gap”.
As part of the efforts, VMIC kit was placed into smaller existing sites, to be used for vaccine production.
‘Drop in the ocean’
Experts say having such a large site in the future would only be a good thing. “As we showed in the pandemic, you absolutely want vaccine manufacturing onshore,” Sir John says.
With the mega-plant open in Britain, the UK would stand a better chance of avoiding the wrangling that came in early 2021 over how doses were portioned out with the EU. It would also mark a major shift from where the UK was at the cusp of the pandemic, when very little vaccine manufacturing was done domestically.
“I remember having a conversation with someone in January 2020 where they said that a couple of old bins in Reading was probably the best we had,” Sir John says. “We were well behind the start-line and we had no idea where this was going to go.”
What scientists did know at the time was that Covid-19 was a highly infectious virus and, with lockdown proving to be the only immediate tool, spending on a manufacturing site was a no-brainer.
“All we could do was lock everybody up in the economy and hope for the best,” Sir John says. “In that context, spending another £150m to just build some production capacity in the UK… well, you could barely blink.”
In May 2020, the Government allocated up to £131m to fast-track the build of a permanent site in Oxford and set up a “virtual VMIC” – a smaller space to be brought online quicker.
The ambition was to create a site capable of churning out 70m vaccine doses in six months – with a further £48m of Government cash provided in March 2021.
Compared to the tens of billions of pounds funnelled into Test and Trace and PPE, insiders say this was thought of as a drop in the ocean.
But not everyone was on board. Clive Dix, the former chairman of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, says a Government-run site “shouldn’t have been on the agenda to start with” and companies should have been incentivised to build themselves.
Still, the Government strived for a facility to make millions of jabs at pace. VMIC quickly turned into a “hungry beast”, Duchars admits. “It is a much bigger, much more expensive facility and a lot more expensive to run.”
Private sector sealed plant’s fate
Only last year ministers realised such a large centre might not be urgently needed. “When the Government saw how companies like AstraZeneca and Pfizer were fulfilling that manufacturing need, they could breathe a sigh of relief,” Duchars explains. “All that changed the dynamic of what VMIC was for.”
With VMIC far larger, “there was going to be a period where it simply wasn’t going to be profitable on day one,” Duchars says. The decision was then made to look for buyers.
According to Sir John, this is the right move: “I think quite frankly the Government can’t run something like that.” Its sale would secure cash back for the taxpayer. “Really, the facility is good. I doubt anyone is coming in and asking for it at half price,” he adds.
Oxford Biomedica, which borrowed equipment from VMIC during the pandemic to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine, is understood to be among those looking at the site. Also said to have tabled bids are Japan’s Fujifilm and Switzerland’s Lonza, according to the FT.
Experts agree these types of companies are the right custodians for VMIC. “If it’s not sitting there cold and they run it as part of their normal business, maybe with some agreement over UK surge capacity, then that’s the right way to do it,” says Dix.
Yet, there remain frustrations over what this might mean for R&D in Britain. VMIC was initially slated to be a hub for innovation, where a swathe of companies could set up shop to try to work on next-generation vaccines.
In 2018, when the site was first envisioned, Government body UKRI put £66m into the site, saying it should “innovate new technologies, like personalised cancer vaccines”.
The fear is this could fall by the wayside and damage efforts to tackle the next pandemic. “It’s gone down a slightly different path in that it’s focused more on the commercial aspects of manufacturing,” says Duchars.
In his view, there is a risk that comes with forgetting VMIC’s purpose.
Britain’s vaccine work has been groundbreaking during the pandemic but there are fears it could take a step back. “Innovation is a really important part of how the UK will stay at the forefront of science,” Duchars says.
Getting a large production site online is one thing but, for Duchars, vaccine innovation should also be important: “I’d hope that that doesn’t get lost.”