IT was hailed as being at the heart of efforts to prepare for pandemics, with millions of public money invested to create a world-leading facility.

Now the decision to sell off the newly completed Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC) in Oxford – supported by the UK Government – is being described as “baffling” and “short-sighted”.

The creation of the centre was announced in 2018 and it was set up as a not-for-profit organisation to provide the UK’s first national facility to develop and make vaccines. The arrival of the Covid pandemic led to additional funding to speed up its completion, with the UK Government investing more than £200 million.

On a visit to the facility in September 2020, Boris Johnson said: “When open, VMIC will be able to manufacture enough vaccine doses for the whole UK population in as little as six months, which would transform how we beat this virus and prepare for future pandemics.”

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In March last year, the Department of Health said the VMIC had been granted almost £215m of government funding to date.

“The VMIC will be the UK’s first national vaccines manufacturing and innovation facility and will be able to respond to pandemics by producing millions of doses quickly,” it added.

Criticism of the plan to sell off the key vaccine infrastructure has been growing since it emerged in November last year.

A protest was held in Oxford last week, with the city council – which is not directly involved in the sale – also voting unanimously to oppose its privatisation.

Rebecca Glover, assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Claas Kirchhelle, lecturer in the history of medicine at University College Dublin, recently wrote an article in the British Medical Journal outlining their concerns.

The researchers told the Sunday National there is currently no other facility of a similar scale in the UK.

“It is important to stress that getting a novel vaccine into clinical trials at scale rapidly is a major strategic asset,” they said in a statement.

“The VMIC arose out of the gaps identified in the Ebola response where it was realised that UK researchers lack rapid scaling up facilities but was also a really innovative experiment in trying to establish a win-win for both public and private sector research, with scale up capabilities in non-emergency situations for private enterprises or university-associated SMEs.

“Following the sell-off, this unique experiment will be over.”

They said a private company was likely to pivot the VMIC towards applications already covered by “Big Pharma” for reasons of profitability.

They added: “The next pandemic could be a completely different disease that requires rapid research and scaling capabilities – industry does not invest in preparing for disease X but in making predictable profits from known diseases (which is legitimate). The loss of this broad expertise will reduce pandemic preparedness.

“More importantly, there are a number of neglected devastating diseases that do not attract sufficient pharmaceutical investment in R&D – the VMIC alongside targeted public research could have made a difference in many fields.”

The researchers also raised concerns about the message being sent over investment in vaccine research development – especially following the U-turn on a deal for Valneva’s Covid-19 vaccine. The UK Government had about 100 million doses on order from the French firm and had invested in its Livingston manufacturing facility. But in September last year it announced it was scrapping the deal, before the company had finished clinical testing of the vaccine.

SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford, the party’s Europe spokesperson at Westminster, who is also a breast surgeon, said: “To me it is unexplainable why you would want to get rid of a resource like this which could help with future resilience and which could still contribute globally to dealing with this pandemic and also to future ones – just like the Valneva vaccine might have been able to.”

WHITFORD pointed out the sale was being made during a new surge in Covid caused by the BA.2 variant, but also that throughout recent history there had been an epidemic or pandemic potential every single decade.

“To me it is bizarrely short-sighted – to build this state of the art [facility] and then pull it, it’s hard to see the logic in that,” she added.

“If this just turns into a pharmaceutical production site, it can disappear in the future because suddenly it’s purely a commercial decision.

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“Someone makes the decision we are going to start making it inside the EU, because we can get through the European Medicines Agency and everything quicker. So if you sell it off you can’t guarantee it will remain anchored in the UK.”

The UK Government says it does not own the facility. However, ministers confirmed earlier this year that national funding agency UK Research and Innovation will be required to “consent” to any sale of the company due to the public funding it has received.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We are supporting VMIC Limited’s board following their decision to pursue a sale of their company.

“In that process, the Government’s primary objective is to ensure the UK retains a strong, domestic vaccine manufacturing capability.”