Vaccines: where did it all go so right?


Vaccines: where did it all go so right?

“More than 100,000 people have died in Britain of Covid-19,” That is more than in any country in Europe, and is almost twice the number in Germany. On a per capita measure, Britain is the “worst-hit G7 nation” – and that reflects a “catastrophic failure of governance”. Back in March 2020, Boris Johnson’s Chief Scientific Adviser told MPs that a “good” outcome would be if deaths were kept below 20,000. Owing to a series of missteps, they’re five times that number, and still rising. “And yet, Britain has also shown wisdom.” Its vaccination programme has “raced ahead of every other country in Europe”. Around 14% of the population has had at least one jab, and if all goes to plan, it has been suggested that everyone over the age of 50 could have had one (or at least been offered one) by the end of March.

“Success has many fathers,” said Glen Owen in The Mail on Sunday, and “ministers and scientists” have jostled for praise for “the UK’s nimble, world-beating strategy”. Near the front of the queue was Health Secretary Matt Hancock – who in a vaccine planning meeting last April posed this question: “In a year’s time, what decisions will we wish we had taken now?” His conclusion was that while the UK’s vaccine expertise was among the best in the world, it had insufficient capability to manufacture vaccines, with just one specialist plant, in Liverpool. Presciently, he warned that it was risky to rely on imports – and the decision was made to ramp up domestic production capacity. It was for this same reason that when the developers of the Oxford vaccine proposed teaming up with the US pharma giant Merck, Hancock vetoed the deal. Merck had considerable expertise in the field, but Hancock was concerned that President Trump might try to stop the export of vaccines, and Merck said it could not guarantee supply.

“Enter the Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca,” said Daniel Boffey and Dan Sabbagh in The Guardian, “whose French chief executive Pascal Soriot was a trusted figure in political circles”. AstraZeneca was not considered a vaccine specialist, but Soriot was prepared to give the Government the guarantees it wanted, and to sell the vaccine at no profit during the pandemic, “which was what Oxford’s scientists wanted”. It was signed as Oxford’s partner on 30 April – just three months after the Oxford team had first convened, on 30 January, to discuss how to combat the crisis unfolding in Wuhan. And just a fortnight after that, AstraZeneca signed a deal to deliver 100 million doses to the UK. Ministers agreed to pay a few million up front, allowing the company to build a manufacturing system – and the UK to demand that its citizens be vaccinated first. Britain’s speed in all this proved to be of the essence: as Soriot explained last week, the “brewing process” for the vaccine takes three months, and the yield is uncertain. AstraZeneca experienced glitches, but had time to fix them, and still obtain regulatory approval in December.

If we’re handing out plaudits for the success of the Government’s vaccine procurement, credit must go to Kate Bingham, said Sean O’Neill in The Times. In April, the venture capitalist (and competitive bog snorkeller) got a call from Boris Johnson. “I want you to stop people dying,” he told her. Her appointment, as head of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, was not universally welcomed. To many, it looked like cronyism: she is a friend of the PM’s sister, and is married to Tory MP Jesse Norman. Moreover, she had, as she admitted, no experience in vaccines. But she is a biochemistry graduate with an MBA from Harvard who runs a biotech fund. She assembled a team of private sector experts, in science, technology and logistics; and within a fortnight, they’d recommended a shortlist of projects for investment. Negotiating advance purchase contracts for vaccines that might never come to fruition was not simple. “The 40 million doses from Pfizer and the 100 million from AstraZeneca are the programme’s workhorses.” But this week, two more firms – Janssen and Novavax – reported positive trial results, potentially adding 90 million doses to UK stocks.

The roll-out is going well, said Jonathan Kitson on CapX. But there remain threats to the system: supplies could be disrupted; and the virus could keep mutating. Having factories in Britain reduces the risk of the former; but no UK plant produces mRNA vaccines – the type made by Pfizer/BioNTech. And it is these vaccines that are most quickly modified, to combat new variants. Happily, “a solution is on its way”: the Vaccines Manufacturing & Innovation Centre is a facility that will be able to respond fast to mutations, as it promises to produce tens of millions of vaccines a year. Accelerating its construction would not be cheap, but it would be well worth the money if it saved us from another economically crippling lockdown while we await a new vaccine.