Government accused of weakening UK's defences against future variants and pandemics

The Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, set to be completed in spring 2022, has been put up for sale (AFP/Getty)

Ministers’ plans to sell off the UK’s vaccine manufacturing plant would leave Britain vulnerable to emerging Covid variants, the head of the centre behind the Oxford jab has warned.

The government is considering a number of bids from the private sector for the Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC) in Harwell – a “surprising” decision that has drawn criticism from one of the leading scientists behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.

Professor Adrian Hill, director of the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, compared the sale of VMIC to “having been in a terrible war and you suddenly cut your defence budget substantially”.

The vaccine centre, which has received more than £200m in taxpayers’ money, was commissioned in the wake of the west African Ebola epidemic to develop a state-run vaccine manufacturing network and better prepare the country for future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Its completion date was brought forward during the rush of the pandemic, from 2023 to spring 2022, while officials agreed to scale up the size of the facility, trebling the project’s original budget of roughly £70m.

But, as first reported by the Financial Times, the government is now looking to offload the centre and recoup some of its investment. According to the paper’s source, the need to expand the UK’s vaccine manufacturing capacity has “gone”, rendering VMIC somewhat redundant.

Prof Hill said David Cameron’s government had “bought into the idea” of preparing the UK for future pandemics, adding that the Covid-19 pandemic had reaffirmed the need for the country to improve its ability to rapidly develop and manufacture vaccines at home, rather than being dependent on the “buyer’s market”.

“Then very disappointingly, in the last couple of months, the news has emerged that the facility is going to be sold,” he said.

“It does appear a very odd thing to do, when you have just had a global pandemic, that you would close down your facility that [meant] you could show the world you were thinking about dealing with the problem beforehand. And then you sell it off. The thinking is contentious.”

Labour’s Wes Streeting, the new shadow health secretary, said it “would be unbelievably shortsighted and complacent” to sell off VMIC during a pandemic that was still raging.

“We are not out of the woods yet, as the emergence of the omicron variant has reminded us all too well,” he said. “This stinks of the Tories putting ideology ahead of Britain’s safety against Covid and future pandemics.”

Further investment is needed to complete construction of the facility, according to the Financial Times. At least four companies have reportedly submitted bids for the centre.

Prof Hill said officials involved with VMIC had hoped to use the centre to engineer and advance new RNA technologies, test pan-coronavirus vaccines, which are effective against all future Covid variants, and even allow biotech or pharmaceutical companies to accelerate the development of their own jabs.

“The tricky thing about just having a manufacturing facility ready for outbreak pathogens is what do you do with it when there’s no pandemic, which is most of the time,” he said. “These projects would have been the answer.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are working closely with VMIC, which is a private company, and others to ensure the UK retains our strong domestic vaccine manufacturing capability to contribute to the UK’s resilience against Covid-19 and other future health emergencies.”

Professor Robin Shattock, chair of the board of directors of VMIC, said: “It remains strategically important that the UK has the ability to innovate new vaccine strategies for the future. The means by which it does that is one that could be debated.”

The concern around the future of vaccine innovation in Britain comes as experts warned that a new generation of Covid jabs could be needed to better protect the country and the rest of the world against emerging variants.

Scientists have said that nasal spray vaccines, along with jabs that target parts of the Covid virus different from the spike protein, may help offer a more diversified form of immunity – one that would protect from both initial infection and severe disease.

“To be really protected against infection, you need antibodies in your nose and your throat,” said Professor Eleanor Riley, an immunologist at the University of Edinburgh.

“The current crop of vaccines that we’ve got are injected into our muscles and induce a systemic immune response, but don’t necessarily target the virus at its point of entry to our bodies – the respiratory tract.”

She suggested a future approach could combine “an intramuscular injection with a shot of something up your nose to give you that local response. Then we may end up in a much better place.”

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said a “second generation” of vaccines was needed, which could target other parts of Sars-CoV-2 alongside the spike protein and retain their effectiveness in the face of heavily mutated variants, such as omicron.

He pointed to the example of the nucleocapsid protein, which plays a key role in the replication of RNA. This structure does not mutate as readily as the spike protein, making it less likely that a vaccine targeting it would need to be tweaked.

“There is research going on into this now,” Prof Young said. “And I can see one possibility of using combinatorial vaccines, where you have vaccines that targets lots of different parts of the spike to cover your bases. The idea of having a pan-coronavirus vaccine. That’s quite an interesting idea.”

Prof Hill said such vaccines were “not impossible” but cautioned that there was much work to be done in developing the technology needed to produce them.

The government said that it had invested more than £380m “to secure and scale up the UK’s manufacturing capabilities to be able to respond to the impact of Covid-19, as well as any future pandemics”.

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