Flagship UK vaccine manufacturing centre put up for sale

A flagship UK vaccine manufacturing centre that has been at the heart of the government’s efforts to prepare for future pandemics, and the recipient of more than £200m of public funding, is now up for sale.

Several companies have submitted bids for the Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre at Harwell near Oxford, and government officials are examining the offers, according to people briefed on the situation.

The government announced the creation of the VMIC in 2018 to develop and make vaccines in the UK, as part of efforts to deal with future epidemics.

The centre had been scheduled for completion in 2023 but at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic the date was brought forward to spring 2022. Prime minister Boris Johnson visited it in September last year.

However, the need for a state-backed vaccine manufacturing centre has waned as pharmaceutical companies have stepped in to meet demand for Covid-19 jabs, according to people familiar with the VMIC sale process.

“The worry was there would be a surge in vaccine manufacturing requirements [during the pandemic], and we’d need surge capacity, and that reason is gone,” said one person familiar with the efforts to offload the VMIC to the private sector.

The person added that additional investment was needed to complete the VMIC, and this could come from a buyer. The government has put at least £215m into the project through UK Research and Development, a state funding agency, and could now look to recoup some of that investment through the sale process.

The VMIC, which is structured as a non-profit company, was originally set up by Oxford university, Imperial College London, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, plus industry partners that included Belgian pharmaceutical subsidiary Janssen and US drug group Merck. The academic institutions own shares in the VMIC.

At least four companies have tabled bids for the VMIC, including UK biotechnology company Oxford BioMedica, Swiss chemicals group Lonza, and Japanese conglomerate Fujifilm, according to people familiar with the offers.

Proposals under consideration range from a sale of the VMIC to a rental of the facility, added these people. The companies declined to comment. The academic institutions did not respond to requests for comment.

Since the VMIC was first announced, a number of officials, including chief executive Matthew Duchars, have stepped down. Duchars declined to comment.

One of the people briefed on the VMIC sale process said the government, the centre’s main prospective customer and a stakeholder, was looking to transfer ownership to a financially viable vaccine manufacturer that “knows how to run it”.

However, Sandy Douglas, a vaccine research leader at Oxford university who collaborated closely with the VMIC from February 2020, said the centre had “accelerated Oxford’s vaccine programme by months” and “saved many lives”.

Another person said the government had not decided what to do about the VMIC’s innovation mission and that it may be left to other initiatives such as the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, a government-backed project that links academia and industry, to fill the gap.

Other people familiar with the government’s change of strategy on the VMIC drew comparisons with its sudden cancellation in September of a Covid-19 vaccine contract with French biotechnology company Valneva, which had included public investment in manufacturing facilities in Scotland.

“Things are tight and so they’re looking for a way to recoup some of that cost,” said one of these people.

The VMIC declined to respond to specific questions, but said it was committed to “accelerating vaccine development, strengthening UK resilience, and providing long-term manufacturing capability for the UK”.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the government’s vaccine task force and UK Research and Innovation were working “closely” with the VMIC “to ensure the UK has a strong domestic vaccine manufacturing capability to contribute to the UK’s resilience against Covid-19 and other future health emergencies”.

Additional reporting by Clive Cookson and Oliver Barnes


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