Poll: Engineers warn sale of UK vaccine centre risks health security and industry innovation

Article by Adam Duckett

ENGINEERS have hit out at the UK Government’s reported plans to sell off the country’s emergency vaccine manufacturing facility, cautioning that a sale to private business will damage skills and scale-up opportunities, and the UK’s ability to react to future health emergencies.

86% of engineers responding to a poll conducted by The Chemical Engineer have said the Government should retain a stake in the UK Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC), following a report in the Financial Times that the Government has put the centre up for sale. Engineers variously described the decision to sell during a pandemic as “curious”, “short-sighted”, and “ludicrous”.

The choice to invest taxpayers’ money in the centre came before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. In 2018, the Government pledged £66m (US$88m) to build the centre in Oxfordshire with operations set to begin in 2023. Its purpose was to provide vaccine manufacturing capacity in the event of a pandemic; offer a cost-effective site for developing and manufacturing new vaccines to support UK industry; and allow cost-effective small production runs for rarer diseases, such as Ebola and Lassa fever. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, the Government awarded VMIC a further £131m to expand production capacity 20-fold so it could produce 70m doses in 4-6 months; to become technology agnostic in terms of the vaccine production technologies it uses; and to fast-track construction with operations currently expected to begin in 2022.

A source briefed on the situation told the FT that concerns have eased about the need for VMIC to provide surge manufacturing capacity and the sale could help the government recoup some of its investment.

Responding to our poll, Al Edwards, an Associate Professor in Biomedical Technology, said: “It seems ludicrous after all the talk of the national security risk of not having UK vaccine manufacturing capacity, followed by a pandemic and more than 150,000 people dead in the UK, followed by a massive investment into a manufacturing facility, to then sell it off. It’s just impossible to understand.”

Another poll respondent said: “The UK Government should maintain and expand its vaccine development and production capabilities. Surrendering these facilities to private industry could cripple our ability to respond quickly to future pandemics, and this represents a serious risk to public health and national security. The government must take the threat of future pandemics seriously. Covid-19 will not be the last pandemic.”

Another said: “As has been shown recently with the failure of our energy, water and rail systems, privatisation is not the answer to national critical healthcare.”

These comments come in response to a poll sent to members of IChemE’s Pharmaceutical Special Interest Group, Biochemical Engineering Special Interest Group and the Covid-19 Response Team. Of the 50 members that responded, 72% said it was “very important” that the UK maintain a stake in VMIC to support domestic emergency vaccine production.

Strategic national risk

Alan Ramsay, a Principal Process Engineer, said: “Without such a facility, decisions on supporting emergency vaccine development and production will be taken at a primarily commercial level, rather than giving priority to public need. Since the facility cannot be guaranteed to be controlled by a UK-based entity, the priorities for the facility may be set to suit the needs and requirements of others, and the benefits derived from the facility will not be enjoyed by the UK.”

Vaccine supplies have been a point of contention throughout the pandemic as countries have struggled to secure enough doses. This remains a problem throughout the developing world, so much so that this month the World Health Organization (WHO) called for a ban on the use of booster doses for healthy adults in order to get vaccines to those who remain unvaccinated. In February, tensions rose between Europe and the UK following the bloc’s relatively slow vaccine rollout. Concerns grew over so-called ‘vaccine nationalism’ as the EU threatened to halt delivery of vaccines that the UK had purchased from plants in Europe.

Bill Thompson, a biopharmaceuticals consultant, said: “Vaccines manufacture, particularly for pandemics, is a national strategic requirement and it's control by a UK-based organisation is necessary to secure supply. The dispute with the EU around supply demonstrated this need in early 2020 and we were fortunate that Oxford Biomedica were able to support the Oxford vaccine. However, they took some time to get going due to the need to install the necessary facilities. VMIC could have done this quicker if it had existed and selling it off increases the risk of it not being available.”

Another respondent added: “Given the difficulty that the Government had procuring something as simple as PPE at the start of the pandemic, we need the facility to develop and manufacture vaccines for the nation without relying on commercial businesses, and without the risk that they can be purchased by companies based outside the UK.”

Innovation, scale-up and skills concerns

64% of respondents said it was “very important” that the UK government retain a stake in VMIC to help with scale-up by industry and universities.

Gary Lye, Head of the Department of Biochemical Engineering at University College London (UCL), said: “The response to the Covid-19 pandemic was a fantastic example of how well networked the UK bioindustry sector is and of the willingness of companies to collaborate to bring the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to patients in record time. I can’t help feeling that the sale of VMIC, however, is a missed opportunity to join up the UK’s vaccine innovation pipeline, from discovery through to manufacture, and to train the scientists and engineers who will help us respond to the next pandemic.”

Mark Phillips said: “The UK has very limited vaccine development and manufacturing capability. Despite a thriving life science industry there remain major gaps in UK capability and especially in the scale-up up and supply chain. Such a facility should remain, like the UK Catapult facilities, as part of the UK infrastructure to enable and accelerate innovation. For too long the UK has under invested in infrastructure and innovation. This would just exacerbate that under performance.”

In 2019, the Royal Academy of Engineering published a report warning that UK support for the translation and commercialisation of research for engineering biology “has been widely recognised as underpowered and intermittent”.

Another respondent said: “VMIC needs to remain an environment for industry development and collaboration. If one singe large company uses the site then there is a risk that the equipment/facilities may be significantly under-utilised over the years as it will be largely dependent on the new product pipeline of that single company. It should always remain a shared innovation facility.”

On the topic of skills, Keith Plumb, a process, safety and equipment consultant, said: “Part of the point of VMIC was to support education and training. If it is sold off, it is very likely that this capability will be lost.”

Peter Robert Wilson, a process and commissioning, qualification and validation engineer, said the mutation of viruses shows the UK needs the skills, training and knowledge to react quickly with modified vaccines.

Respondents felt it was relatively less important that the UK retain a stake in VMIC to support companies producing small batches of drugs for clinical trial. Though several commented that the sale of VMIC would repeat the perceived mistakes made when the UK North West Development Agency sold its National Biomanufacturing Centre (NBC) to Eden Biodesign in 2011.

“This reminds me of the NBC in Speke that was created in the early 2000s as a bridge between academia and industry using taxpayers’ money, and was then sold off to private companies,” said Glenn Robinson. “This centre [VMIC] was created with taxpayers’ money and should therefore be retained by government as a centre for the country.”

Another respondent said: "This is Eden BioDesign all over again. Spend taxpayers’ money, then sell to the private sector when public interest has waned.  SARS-CoV-2 will die-out eventually, but it will be replaced by another, equally-devastating respiratory viral disease, so VMIC should be maintained under government control, to increase UK expertise in biopharmaceutical manufacturing and to prepare for the next pandemic.”

If it does sell, should Government secure emergency powers?

88% of respondents said if the Government does sell VMIC it should maintain the capability to commandeer production in case of an emergency.

One respondent said: “Once in private hands, the manufacturing slots are likely to be filled up and contracted for. Slots are often booked out years in advance as customers demand, justifiably, that their manufacturing is guaranteed. These won't be easily freed up when the next pandemic comes.”

Pradeep Deo, a retired engineer, said: “Selling to private companies is a good idea but the government should maintain a stake and emergency powers.”

Don’t retain a stake in VMIC

Of the 50 respondents to the poll, seven said the government should not retain a stake in a VMIC.

One respondent said: “State ownership of a capability that can be delivered through the open market is misguided. Whilst the state can help its own ends by facilitating research and training, market demand is a better determinant of the need for manufacturing capability.”

A second said: “The better approach is to encourage and develop existing commercial infrastructure and use Porton Down [the UK Government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory] which has the established skills and capability in supporting rare diseases. There are better options to be considered for supporting academic research.”

A third said: “Perhaps a more collaborative relationship with industry to attract development and production capacity would have made more sense…Perhaps the circa £200m spent on VMIC could have helped invest in existing infrastructure?”

Helping with rare diseases

52% of respondents said it was very important that the UK Government retain a stake in VMIC to support the production of relatively small batches of treatments for rarer diseases that have not proved commercially attractive for private companies. This was one of founding reasons for the initial investment in the centre in 2018, when the Government said the centre would develop vaccines for deadly diseases including Ebola.

One respondent said: “Government must maintain an involvement in VMIC to ensure that important factors which do not relate to purely commercial activities are pursued. These would include assistance to developing countries to produce and distribute life-saving medicines if requested.”

The final say

A former technical advisor to the UK Vaccines Taskforce said: "National vaccine manufacturing capability, where the agenda of the developer and manufacturer is aligned to public health needs is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. We were lucky that Oxford Biomedica and Wockhardt had commercial capacity at the outset to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine within the UK. Other UK facilities failed to manufacture at GMP/at scale. We have had to wait for other facilities such as Fujifilm [in Billingham] to become available; we are still waiting for that vaccine to become available to us over a year on."

Matthew Mell, a Lead Engineer, said: "Government has said it is committed to being a world leader in research and innovation. How can that be true if they’re prepared to sell off infrastructure [that could be critical for controlling disease]?”

A. Roche, a postdoctoral researcher, said: “All evidence points to there being more frequent outbreaks of viral diseases in the future, and that we will possibly need to produce doses for flu and Covid vaccines on a yearly basis. Therefore, maintaining capacity for manufacturing and innovation is critical to future pandemic preparedness. In addition, it is our responsibility in the global north to ensure doses continue to be manufactured and distributed to the global majority countries, even if this is not as profitable for private companies.”

The UK Government was asked to confirm whether it is in the process of reviewing bids for VMIC, as reported in the FT. In did not provide a direct answer to the question. Spokespeople from the Government and VMIC both said they are working to strengthen UK resilience.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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