Boris Johnson was on Friday accused of wanting to start “a vaccine war” by a senior EU official as Brussels imposed export controls on jabs from the bloc. But after years of Brexit tension with Brussels, the British prime minister has spent the week trying to do the exact opposite.
After being pilloried for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Johnson finds himself in the unusual position of having manoeuvred Britain into the position of being a global leader in the purchase and distribution of vaccines.
“We gambled and it paid off,” said one ally of Mr Johnson on Friday. Britain now has orders for 367m doses of seven different vaccines in production or development and the good news kept coming this week for the prime minister.
The UK has vaccinated more than 10 per cent of adults, compared with the EU’s 2 per cent, and encouraging results from two more trials this week raised hopes that vaccines by Novavax and Johnson & Johnson could come on stream in Britain later this year.
But there has been little flag-waving by Mr Johnson. Ministers and aides have been told not to inflame the bitter dispute between the EU and the UK-headquartered AstraZeneca over its supply to the bloc of the vaccine developed with Oxford university.
Mr Johnson said he was “confident” that Britain’s contract with AstraZeneca signed last year — three months before the EU did a similar deal — would ensure that the company delivered the promised 2m doses a week in the UK.
The EU wants the company to divert doses made in UK factories to the bloc. “Contract matters between AstraZeneca and the EU are a matter for them,” Downing Street said.
Rather than seeking a “vaccine war” — as suggested by Didier Reynders, EU justice commissioner, on Belgian radio on Friday — Mr Johnson has opposed the kind of export controls that Brussels imposed on Friday as the EU’s vaccine strategy was left in disarray by dose shortages.
“Export controls would be bad for the whole world,” said one UK official, adding that Russia and China would love to see western countries falling out and failing to co-operate in the fight against the pandemic.
Downing Street fears that if vaccine nationalism takes hold, countries such as India — a manufacturing powerhouse for Covid-19 vaccines — would come under pressure to restrict exports, damaging the rest of the world.
Mr Johnson is confident the EU will not restrict deliveries of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to the UK from a plant in Belgium. Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, has suggested Britain might export surplus vaccines later in the year.
Downing Street officials said that, while mistakes were made in other aspects of handling the pandemic, the UK vaccines task force, led by the venture capitalist Kate Bingham until last month, had been a striking success.
“We moved incredibly quickly,” said one aide to Mr Johnson. “We rolled the dice and were prepared to go out and fund research and award contracts in the hope that science would find a way forward.”
Ms Bingham told the BBC that Britain did not have the purchasing clout of the EU, US or Japan. “We sought to address that by being as nimble, co-operative and supportive as we possibly could,” she said.
The National Audit Office expects the UK to invest a total of £11.7bn to purchase, manufacture and deploy Covid-19 vaccines and support vaccine research. This includes £6.2bn for vaccine procurement up to 2022-23, according to the government spending watchdog.
The UK’s successful vaccines effort is rooted in the development of a life sciences industrial strategy over the past four years, which ensured that the country had the infrastructure and connections to deliver innovative vaccines when the pandemic struck, according to the head of its biotech body.
Steve Bates, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association, pointed to the important role of the relationships built through discussions about strengthening life sciences after Brexit. These have ensured close ties between government, academia and industry in the four years since the UK voted to leave the EU.
“Everyone knew each other and we had a series of relationships built for a different purpose but they were easily adapted when the crisis came along,” Mr Bates said.
The decision in 2018 to establish a Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre, funded by a mixture of government and industry cash, was a key declaration of intent about the country’s desire to be at the forefront of novel vaccine manufacturing long before coronavirus struck, he added.
However, VMIC was planned for completion in 2023 — necessitating a quick turn of speed when the pandemic struck. The centre at Harwell near Oxford is now expected begin work late this year and be fully operational in 2022, after the government pumped in £131m to accelerate the project.
Cutting-edge science being developed at Oxford university’s Jenner Institute and Imperial College London, among others, meant “we had some discovery capacity but we knew we needed innovation in turning those scientific ideas into manufacturable vaccines,” he said.
“We all worked together — the academic community, the industrial community — to work out how to make this happen at pace and scale”, said Mr Bates. This “coalition of the willing” evolved in April into the Vaccines Taskforce.
While seven separate vaccine contracts were struck during the course of 2020, Britain also built up production capacity for freezers to store the doses and vials to deliver them. Jonathan Van Tam, deputy chief medical officer, played a key role in preparing the delivery mechanisms.
The UK regulator has led the world in approving Covid-19 vaccines — clearing the BioNTech/Pfizer shot in early December and the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab late last month — giving the country a head start.
A total of 7.9m of the most vulnerable adults have now received one dose, with Mr Johnson confident that 15m will have received their first shot by mid-February.
By April, 32m people aged over 50 should be vaccinated if, as Mr Johnson said this week, there was no interruption to supplies of vaccines.