COVID-19: Rejected Contracts and a Hollywood Movie – How Britain Signed a Vaccine Supply Agreement | UK news
As the dispute over vaccine supplies deepened this week, the UK government stuck to a simple line.
Ministers and officials have repeatedly said they do not want a conflict over vaccines. At the same time, they expressed confidence that they would get the doses they needed.
“We are very confident in our deliveries, we are very confident in our contracts and we are proceeding on this basis,” said the Prime Minister on Wednesday. Behind the scenes, the news is the same. As far as possible, the trust is real.
Its source is the UK’s largest vaccine contract: its agreement with AstraZeneca for 100 million doses of the vaccine developed in Oxford.
Ministers believe this agreement will keep vaccine supplies to the UK going in the unwanted event of a vaccine trade war.
This is partly a question of technology. In contrast to the Pfizer vaccine, which is largely made in Europe using a special technology that would be difficult to replicate elsewhere, the process of making the AstraZeneca vaccine – in terms of the vaccine – is relatively flexible.
“The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is based on a more established technology, which means there are a wide range of suppliers for all of the materials and consumables that go into this vaccine,” said Dr. Zoltan Kis of the Future Manufacturing Hub at Imperial College London, who is studying how to make large quantities of vaccines very quickly.
“That means the company is not limited to any particular supplier. If they don’t need to be used [European] Suppliers would have the option of switching to a supplier outside the EU. “
Switching suppliers would almost certainly cause delays as new agreements were made and certified. (Regulatory reviews to bring a vaccine manufacturing facility online can take weeks, if not months.) In the worst case scenario, it would at least be possible.
The real source of government trust, however, is the contract with AstraZeneca, which ministers believe will oblige the pharmaceutical company to deliver British cans first – a fact AstraZeneca boss Pascal Soriot confirmed in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
Whether this guarantee will stand up to a challenge remains to be seen. However, according to a former advisor to the Department of Health and Welfare (DHSC), the UK has almost missed this level of security.
That’s because the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was almost the Oxford-Merck vaccine – and under the agreement with the American pharmaceutical giant, there were no delivery guarantees.
The episode took place against the backdrop of the first phase of the pandemic. In March and April 2020, Oxford University negotiated a contract that would allow Merck to manufacture and distribute the vaccine it is developing.
The arrangement made sense. In contrast to the British-Swedish AstraZeneca, Merck had experience in the manufacture of vaccines. The executives had ties to the Oxford scientist and government adviser Sir John Bell.
However, when the contract reached Matt Hancock’s desk, the Minister of Health refused to approve it because it did not contain any provisions expressly stating that it would ship to the UK first.
The fear was export controls – not from the EU, but from the USA. Mr. Hancock was concerned that President Trump would prevent Merck from leaving the country.
With the University and Merck “as close to signing on the dotted line as they could get,” he stopped because he didn’t want to risk the intellectual property rights for the Oxford vaccine falling into the hands of one only get American company.
“He should just confirm that he was happy and then it would have happened immediately,” said the former agent. “But he wasn’t and outvoted officials to block the deal.”
According to reports, Oxford scientists weren’t sure the deal with Merck was strong enough to provide vaccines to poorer countries. Mr. Hancock’s objection was more local and political. He wanted to make sure there was enough for British citizens. The rest of the world could come later.
German MEP Peter Liese said Britain was “acting like Donald Trump” by assuring that it would receive vaccination doses first. In reality, according to this report, it was fear of Trump – or Trump-like behavior – that led the government to seek additional security.
To see how quickly competition for scarce resources can lead to conflict, Mr. Hancock and his advisors only had to look at their own recent experiences. As the negotiations between Oxford and Merck developed, DHSC desperately sought ways to replenish its worn-out stocks of personal protective equipment.
In NHS hospitals, nurses wore garbage bags as protective clothing. However, efforts to obtain PPE have been hampered by European export controls.
In early March, Germany imposed a temporary ban on PPE leaving the country. Shortly afterwards, the EU introduced a similar measure (as did the UK, which has maintained restrictions preventing hundreds of medicines from leaving their borders without permission).
The PSA crisis got so serious that a former Downing Street insider said it almost cost Mr. Hancock his job. It also gave the Minister of Health a strong reminder of the Hobbesian nature of global politics in a pandemic.
The other memory came from a more surprising source: Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion.
Released in 2011, the film followed the path of a pandemic caused by a SARS-like respiratory virus that killed millions and caused widespread social unrest until it was finally stopped by an effective vaccine.
When the vaccine arrived, however, there wasn’t enough of it to get around, so vaccinations were given through a lottery based on birth dates.
The episode stuck in Mr. Hancock’s mind. “He would keep referring to the end of the film,” says the former DHSC advisor.
“He was always very conscious from the start, first that the vaccine was really important, second that if we were to develop a vaccine we would see an all-powerful global mess for this cause.”
At other times during the pandemic, it appeared like the government was making an effort to keep up with events. Former insiders on both DHSC and Downing Street admit they struggled to come up with a strategy to deal with a virus that is spreading so quickly with no symptoms.
However, the focus has been on vaccines from the start. According to the former advisor, the DHSC started work in January before there was even a case of COVID-19 In the United Kingdom.
At the time, scientists said a vaccine was unlikely to be developed within 18 months, let alone a year – and that when they arrived they would likely be around 50% effective. However, at the suggestion of Mr. Hancock, the Department of Health pushed ahead to ensure that everything was ready for the moment the vaccine arrived.
“Every extra day it takes to dispense a vaccine comes with a human and economic cost,” Hancock told officials in April. “I don’t care if people think it’s years away – every day we save now is life we’ll save in a year.”
Every process had to be accelerated. At an internal meeting in April, a group of vaccine officials was asked to expect the vaccine to arrive in a year. What would you have to do now for this scenario to work well?
The responses, said one person in attendance, were “stunning”. One expert warned that there would almost certainly be a shortage of glass vials. Another said it would be difficult to produce. A third raised the problem of supply chains.
The normal course of action is to correct these problems as soon as the vaccine is ready. But these were not normal times – so the government decided to solve them in advance.
Production lines have been worked out. Provisions have been made for “filling and finishing” the vaccine. Suppliers for glass vials were found and contracts were concluded.
At the same time, officials noted that while there was a Therapeutics Taskforce overseeing the search for and use of treatments for COVID-19, there was no equivalent body for vaccines. The vaccine task force was set up: a month later, Kate Bingham was appointed head of the department and given the task of ordering the vaccines herself.
As he pushed his team to go faster, Mr. Hancock took inspiration from yet another early failure. In March, the government bought two million antibody tests from two Chinese companies and prepaid them. Boris Johnson promised that the upcoming delivery would be a game changer. In reality, they turned out to be unusable.
The principle of taking a risk on potential new solutions before they have been proven was the right approach, according to Hancock. That could lead to more errors – arguably the first contact tracking app, in particular – but he believed that would produce the best results overall.
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The stance was in line with that of other senior officials, including former Downing Street advisor Dominic Cummings. According to a public health official who worked on vaccines and mass testing, the central government’s mantra was, “No regrets.”
“Everyone said that,” recalled the officer. “They have made plans for the vaccination to start in October. We found that a bit optimistic, but kept saying: ‘We don’t want to regret it’.”
Some might say that waiting for a vaccine to arrive is not a strategy to fight a pandemic, and the UK’s desperation to deliver it is indeed a sign that it cannot control the virus by alternative means. It is also true that while Britain is off to a quick start, there is still time for something to go wrong. After all, it started quickly during testing.
For now, however, the government is confident that it will have what it needs. Some say that this trust was precisely what enabled the prospect of a vaccine trade war to be downplayed, rather than inflamed. Another lesson about the nature of pandemic policy: There can be no peace without security.
Over three evenings, Sky News will host a series of special programs examining the UK’s response to the pandemic.
Watch COVID Crisis: Learning the Lessons on February 9, 10, and 11 at 8 p.m.
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