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UK lacks plans to make pandemic vaccines quickly, MPs hear

Country also needs to improve its relationship with pharmaceuticals companies, says a former government adviser

The government agency set up to protect public health is not sufficiently prepared to quickly turn around vaccines in the event of another pandemic, MPs have heard.

Ian McCubbin, who advised the government as part of the Vaccines Taskforce during Covid, told the science, innovation and technology committee in the House of Commons this week that “nobody in the industry is talking about” getting ready to rapidly produce new vaccine and drugs in a pandemic.

He was answering a question from the chair of the committee, Greg Clark, on whether the UK Health Security Agency had an “adequate plan with respect to surging vaccine, discovery, procurement and manufacturing”. McCubbin responded, “Probably not.”

Success means ‘working together’

The former government adviser explained that the success of producing vaccines so quickly during Covid was because “everyone was working together”. But he said he had talked to a number of academics in the field and they’d had “no communication” about preparing to produce vaccines quickly if needed.

McCubbin concluded that meant it was “unlikely” the UK Health Security Agency, which was set up in the wake of the Covid pandemic, had a “collective plan where the best of the UK capability in academic, industry and UKHSA could be pulled together”.

He also said the UK needed to improve its relationship with pharmaceutical companies “because life sciences industries are long term”.

“If we can create a longer-term strategic view and move away from the tactical relationship that seems to exist in my mind at the moment, that would be a massive step forward,” he said.

McCubbin suggested the UK was missing out on pharmaceutical companies moving to the UK at the moment, partly because of negotiations around price.

The pharmacist, with over 30 years of experience, also suggested that “thinking about [a] core life sciences strategy” would derisk the “pandemic lottery”, where no one knows when a pandemic will come. To prepare well for another pandemic, the UK “should investigate how, in normal life, science’s work is done”, McCubbin told the MPs.

‘Preparedness’ discussions

The chief executive officer of UKHSA, Jenny Harries, who was the government’s deputy chief medical officer at the start of the Covid pandemic, told the committee that although there was no long-term plan at the moment to cope with another pandemic, there were “conversations” taking place.

“There are conversations linked to the pandemic preparedness work which the Department of Health is doing, and linked into biosecurity strategy, that I think will define what we do have on a long-term basis going forward,” she said.

The Science, Innovation and Technology Committee has been looking into emerging diseases and learnings from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The comments come as MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee are set to also examine UK preparedness for future pandemics on Monday. They are running a follow-up session to the committee’s ‘Coronavirus: lessons learnt’ joint inquiry with the science committee, which questioned Harries and John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, in November 2022. Bell said at the time that “a full plan was not yet in place” to deal with a new pandemic.

The MPs are expected to raise questions about the legacy of the Vaccine Taskforce and concerns that have since been raised about the UK’s ability to develop and manufacture new vaccines.