UK needs ‘flexible’ vaccine capacity ‘to lead globally in pandemic preparedness’

The UK needs a “flexible capacity” for manufacturing and testing vaccines in order to be a global leader in pandemic preparedness, a former vaccines taskforce boss has said.

Dr Clive Dix, who was chairman of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce (VTF) in 2020, said the country needs to “act quickly” to prevent future pandemics with “a permanent ecosystem for rapidly developing, manufacturing and supplying vaccines”.

In his recommendations submitted to MPs on behalf of the now-disbanded VTF, Dr Dix also said the original concept of the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) – a £200m government-funded base in Oxfordshire that was sold to a drugs company in 2022 – needs to be re-established.

The VMIC was set up as a not-for-profit company with the aim of combining vaccine research and manufacturing in one place, but was sold to US-based Catelant before its construction was finished.

Catelant later announced it was delaying the project, leading to renewed fears about the UK’s future vaccine-manufacturing capabilities.

Dr Dix, who is now chief executive at drugs discovery firm C4X Discovery, wrote: “The decision to transform VMIC into a manufacturing capability was flawed but having now sold it the Catalent who have mothballed it the concept of the original VMIC needs to be re-established probably through a virtual model.”

The recommendations, submitted to the inquiry being conducted by the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, also include the creation of a National Vaccines Agency whose remit would include developing, scaling-up and distributing new vaccines.

Another proposal also includes setting up a dedicated centre for human challenge trials – where volunteers who have been given the trial vaccine or a placebo are intentionally exposed to a virus within a controlled research environment to understand more about the associated disease.

Dr Dix wrote: “The UK is currently home to the leading human challenge academic research, and thousands of volunteers have been through human challenge models.

Boris Johnson visits VMIC
The construction site of the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (Richard Pohle/PA)

“Currently the UK is the only country to set up a human challenge model for Covid-19. In this respect the UK has the experience to lead the world in this field.

“However, the current UK human challenge capacity is limited.

“It is for this reason that the VTF recommends a Human Challenge Centre of Excellence (HCCE), so that the UK may build on the capacity currently in place and continue to lead in this regard.”

The recommendations submitted by Dr Dix were originally prepared in December 2020 and submitted to Government but never previously made public.

The VTF, meanwhile, was set up to drive forward the development and production of a Covid-19 vaccine as quickly as possible.

After Covid-19 vaccines were rolled out in the UK, it closed in October 2022 and its vaccine supply responsibilities were moved to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

On Wednesday, experts witnesses – including Dr Jenny Harries, who was deputy chief medical officer during the pandemic and is now chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency – will be questioned by MPs on the what has been done to build on the success of the VTF.