Over the Christmas-New Year break more scientists joined a growing outcry against the government plan to sell off the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre UK (VMIC), which was first revealed by the Financial Times at the end of November.

The FT reports that at least four companies have tabled bids for the VMIC, including UK biotechnology company Oxford BioMedica, Swiss healthcare manufacturer Lonza, and Japanese conglomerate Fujifilm. 

The “offloading” of the Centre marks a major about-turn by government. Back in May 2020, then chief executive of UK Research and Innovation Professor Sir Mark Walport, welcoming fresh government investment to expand VMIC’s capacity, said it was “an essential new weapon in the UK’s arsenal against diseases and other biological threats.

In December 2020 the UK Vaccine Taskforce’s document ‘2020 Achievements and Future Strategy’ also insisted on its long term importance: “We have worked with VMIC to increase VMIC’s delivery capability … to 70m doses of pandemic vaccine. … This is a permanent facility, with government step-in rights during a crisis.”

Immediate criticism of the planned sell-off came from experts working with VMIC. Sandy Douglas, a vaccine research leader at Oxford University, told the FT it had “accelerated Oxford’s vaccine programme by months” and “saved many lives”. 

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, who developed the AstraZeneca jab, told the FT’s Helen Thomas that a fully-functioning VMIC would have been “game-changing” for the Oxford team in making larger stocks for clinical trials rather than working with multiple manufacturers.

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

VMIC was first set up in 2018, as a not-for-profit company with no shareholders, by the University of Oxford, Imperial College, and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, with support from vaccine industry experts MSD, Johnson and Johnson, and Cytiva and £66m of government funds. 

It was initially envisaged as a way to break from the long history of UK vaccine research, which had “not always had a clear pathway for new vaccines to move from discovery to licensed product.” For the first time “Under one roof this unique facility, operated by our experts, will promote, develop and accelerate the growth of the vaccine industry.”

The pandemic led to an expansion and acceleration of the project, bringing forward its full opening by a year to 2022. In April 2020 construction of the 74,000 square metre VMIC facility began on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.

VMIC experts set up the first UK consortium which drove the process and manufacturing scaleup of the Oxford vaccine through to 2021, when the work was handed over to AstraZeneca.

For this leading role VMIC won an industry award in December 2020, and as recently as March this year VMIC’s role was praised in an Industrial Strategy Council Research Paper, which described in as “a cornerstone” of strategy for vaccine supplies “in the long term.”

However the subsequent large scale production of successful vaccines by big pharma corporations, meant ministers and hawkish Treasury chiefs are now trying to recoup as much as possible of the money invested.

Their argument that VMIC’s crucial role as a state-backed vaccine manufacturing centre is no longer necessary has been strongly refuted by a previous leader of the government’s own Vaccines Task Force, Clive Dix, who told the Observer in November:

“If we leave it to the industry to do, they’re going to go to the highest bidder, and the UK won’t be at the front of that queue any more, because it’s not a big market. Whereas if you act as a partner, you get things done.”

Now it seems VMIC is set to be another victim of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s tightening austerity cap on NHS funding, which has already led to him warning Health Secretary Sajid Javid that the extra costs of the booster jabs will have to mean cutbacks elsewhere in the NHS.

This short-sighted decision to prioritise cash, profits and corporations over health is consistent with the Johnson government’s instinctive turn to the private sector rather than invest in the NHS or other public services.

This has led to the disastrous squandering of up to £37 billion on a dysfunctional test and trace system, billions more on dodgy deals for PPE with firms owned by cronies and donors rather than established companies, and up to £12bn more on treating NHS patients in private hospital beds rather than invest in remodelling NHS hospitals to reopen thousands of closed beds. 

Since 2010 Tory-led governments have used the lack of NHS capital as a way to force hospital bosses into “partnerships” with profit-seeking private companies.

Years of real-terms cuts in funding for public health provision have also cut the public health grant by 24% in real terms per capita since 2015/16, with the biggest reductions in the poorest areas. This has undermined efforts to address health inequalities and tackle major threats to health. It also  meant that public health experts lacked the resources to develop a professional and effective track and trace system to combat Covid-19: instead lucrative contracts went instead to Deloitte, Serco, Sitel and other private contractors.

The sale of VMIC must be stopped: but we need to go further, and fight to reverse the austerity policies of the Treasury and Rishi Sunak, and force this government that has been so generous to the private sector to invest instead in repairing, reopening and expanding the NHS itself and its workforce to cope with the real health needs of the 21st century. 

That’s what the new SOS NHS campaign is setting out to do in 2022. Join us and help us win.

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