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UK’s Covid jab manufacturing capabilities in disarray again

Image: Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre

Fears over the country’s future capacity to make vaccines, as worrying Covid-19 variant reaches UK

Major concerns over the UK’s ability to make its own vaccines without relying on overseas production plants have reappeared more than a year and half into the Covid-19 pandemic, with the new Omicron coronavirus variant bringing the issue to the fore.

The government-backed £200 million UK Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) in Oxfordshire (pictured) has yet to open, and it today emerged in a Financial Times report that the government has put it up for sale in the hope of recouping its investment before it is even up and running.

Meanwhile, the former head of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, Clive Dix, told the BBC today that French company Valneva, which has been setting up a vaccine production facility in West Lothian, Scotland, has stopped vaccine production there following the UK’s controversial cancellation this September of its order for Valneva vaccines.

Dix described the decision to cancel the order as a “disaster” adding that Valneva is “not continuing the manufacturing in Scotland”.

Dix’s comments came after he told the Observer this weekend that the UK government seemed to have ignored his proposals from April this year to put in place plans for rapid development, approval and deployment of vaccines for worrying coronavirus variants that might evade existing vaccines.

Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, told Research Professional News that the pandemic had highlighted “significant deficiencies in the worldwide capacity to manufacture vaccines”, and that VMIC “provides essential government-sponsored vaccine manufacturing capacity, a vital component of the UK’s preparedness for future pandemics”.

Commenting on reports of its sale, he said: “Relying solely on pharmaceutical companies to provide such a facility is a risky strategy.”

Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, told Research Professional News that the UK’s capacity to make its own vaccines “is not much improved” since the start of the pandemic, when the UK was caught unprepared. 

“Most of the AZ [AstraZeneca] vaccine is manufactured abroad with a small contribution from Cobra [Biologics] in Keele and Oxford Biomedica in Oxford, so even the ‘made in UK’ vaccine is actually not made here in bulk,” he said.

If the VMIC is sold, he added, “clearly that would then be a facility whose use would have to be in line with the owners’ priorities, which was not its original intention”, which was to provide the UK with the capacity it lacks.

Summarising recent developments in the UK’s Covid-vaccine production capacity, he said: “Has it got better? No. Is the government forward-thinking and light-footed? No. Will we be a better place nationally post-Covid? Doubtful.”

He added: “The one strong development which bodes well for the future is that the RNA vaccines do not require the same infrastructure and that, now proven, manufacture could be established in many more places. But that’s not a UK success.”

A spokesperson for the VMIC would not confirm or deny the reports of its sale.

They said: “We remain committed to ensuring that VMIC delivers the innovation and manufacturing capability it was established for, ultimately, accelerating vaccine development, strengthening UK resilience, and providing long-term manufacturing capability for the UK.”

To date, the VMIC has been granted almost £215m by the UK government and was set up in a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and industry partners including Janssen and Merck in the US.

The business department said the government does not discuss information that is commercially sensitive.

A government spokesperson said: “The Vaccine Taskforce and UKRI are working closely with VMIC, which is a private company, to ensure the UK has a strong domestic vaccine manufacturing capability to contribute to the UK’s resilience against Cvoid-19 and other future health emergencies.”

Research Professional News has approached Valneva for comment.