As the line of vaccine supplies warmed up this week, the UK government stuck to a simple line.
Ministers and officials have repeatedly said they do not want conflict over vaccines. Nevertheless, at the same time, they expressed the hope that they would get the quantities they needed.
“We are very confident in our products, we are very confident in our contracts and we are moving forward on that basis,” the Prime Minister announced on Wednesday. Behind the scenes, the message is the same. As far as I can tell, the hope is real.
Its source is the UK’s largest vaccine lineup: contract with Astrogeneka for 100 million doses of vaccine developed in Oxford.
Ministers hope the arrangement will keep the supply of vaccines coming to the UK, even in the unwanted event of a vaccine trade war.
To some extent, this is a matter of technology. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, which cannot be copied anywhere else using the special technology mass-produced in Europe, the process used to develop the Astrogenega vaccine – vaccine-based – is relatively flexible.
“The Oxford Astrogeneca vaccine is based on highly established technology, meaning there are a wide range of suppliers for all the ingredients and consumables that go into this vaccine,” said Dr. Solton Kiss of Imperial College London ’s Future Production Center. How to prepare vaccines very quickly.
“That means the company is not limited to a particular supplier. Maybe they should not use them [European] Suppliers, they will have the option to switch to a supplier outside the EU. “
Changing suppliers will definitely lead to delays as new arrangements are made and certified. (Regulatory tests to bring a vaccine production facility online can take weeks, if not months) But in a bad situation, it is at least possible.
However, the real source of the government’s confidence is the deal with AstraZeneca, which ministers believe involves a pharmaceutical company to be the first to supply UK drugs – this was confirmed by AstraZeneca boss Pascal Soriat in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
It remains to be seen whether that guarantee will be sustained under a challenge. Nevertheless, according to a former Department of Health and Social Security (DHSC) consultant, the UK has almost missed this level of protection.
This is because the Oxford-Astrogeneca vaccine is almost the Oxford-Merck vaccine – and under the terms of the contract with US pharmaceutical companies, there is no guarantee of delivery.
The episode played against the backdrop of the first phase of the epidemic. In March and April 2020, the University of Oxford negotiated a contract that would allow Merck to manufacture and distribute the vaccine that was in the process of being developed.
The arrangement made sense. Unlike the British-Swedish AstraZeneca, Merck had experience in making vaccines. Its senior executives were in contact with Oxford scientist and government adviser Sir John Bell.
When the deal reached Matt Hancock’s desk, the former adviser said the health secretary refused to approve it because it did not specifically include rules in the UK’s first offer.
Fear export restrictions – not from the EU, but from the United States. Mr Hancock was worried that President Trump would prevent Merck from leaving the country.
The University and Merck “stopped close to signing the dotted line”, so he stopped moving forward because he did not want the risk of ending intellectual property rights to the Oxford vaccine in one hand. American company.
“He was there to make sure he was happy, and then it would have happened immediately,” the former adviser said. “But he did not, and violated the authorities to block the deal.”
According to reports, Oxford scientists are not sure whether the agreement with Merck has enough provisions to provide vaccines to poor countries. Mr Hancock’s objection is local and political. He wanted to make sure there were enough for the citizens of England. Other parts of the world may come later.
German MEP Peter Lees said the UK was behaving “like Donald Trump” by trying to guarantee that vaccines would be available in the first place. In fact, according to this account, fear of Trump – or Trump-like behavior – prompted the government to seek additional protection.
To see how quickly the competition for scarce resources will escalate into conflict, Mr. Hancock and his advisers only need to look at their own recent experience. At the same time that negotiations between Oxford and Merck were developing, the DHSC was actively hunting for ways to replenish the yarn stock of its personal protective equipment.
At NHS hospitals, nurses wore backpacks for safety clothing. Nevertheless, the struggle to capture the BPE has been exacerbated by European export restrictions.
In early March, the BPE imposed a temporary ban on Germany leaving the country; Soon, the European Union introduced a similar measure (as in the UK, it also maintains restrictions on preventing hundreds of drugs from leaving its borders without permission).
The BPE crisis grew so intense that a former Downing Street insider told Mr Hancock that his job would cost almost nothing. It provided a powerful reminder to the Secretary of Health about the hobbyist nature of world politics in an epidemic.
The other reminder came from a very surprising source: Steven Soderbergh’s film Infection.
The film, released in 2011, followed the path of an epidemic caused by a respiratory virus such as SARS, which killed millions and caused widespread social unrest until it was finally stopped by an effective vaccine.
However, when the vaccine arrived, it was not enough to go around, so vaccines were given by lottery based on dates of birth.
The chapter stuck in Mr. Hancock’s mind. “He will mark the end of the film,” says the former DHSC consultant.
“He always really knew from the beginning that first the vaccine was very important and secondly when a vaccine was developed we would see an omnipresent global struggle for this cause.”
At other times during epidemics, it feels like the government is digging to continue the events. Former individuals in both DHSC and Downing Street acknowledge that they struggled to find a strategy to deal with a virus that spreads so fast without symptoms.
Yet from the very beginning the focus was on vaccines. According to the former consultant, DHSC started its operations in January Covit19 In the UK.
After that, scientists say it is unlikely a vaccine will be developed within 18 months, let alone a year – and they will be 50% effective when they arrive. However, with the encouragement of Mr. Hancock, the Department of Health moved forward to ensure that everything was ready by the time the vaccine arrived.
“Every extra day it takes to deliver a vaccine comes with human cost and economic cost,” Mr Hancock told officials in April. “I do not care if people think it’s many years – every day we save now, the lives we save in a year.”
Every process had to be expedited. At an internal meeting in April, the team of vaccination officials was asked to consider whether the vaccine would arrive within a year. To play well in that situation, what should they do now?
The answers, someone who came there, said it was “captivating.” One expert warned that there would be an almost shortage of glass bottles. Another said production would be difficult. One-third raised the issue of supply chains.
The normal way to do things is to fix these problems as soon as the vaccine is ready. But these are not normal times – so the government decided to settle them in advance.
Production taxes were levied. Vaccine “filling and termination” arrangements were made. Suppliers for glass vials were discovered and contracts secured.
At the same time, despite the presence of a therapeutic task force and overseeing the search and use of treatment for COVID-19, officials realized that there was no body comparable to the vaccine. The Vaccine Working Group was formed: a month later, Kate Bingham was appointed its chairman, and was given the task of ordering the vaccines themselves.
As he pushed his team to go faster, Mr Hancock was inspired by another early defeat. In March, the government purchased two million antibody tests from two Chinese companies. Boris Johnson promised that the upcoming ship would be a “game changer”. In fact, it turned out that they were unusable.
But before they could be proven, Mr Hancock decided that the policy of risking new solutions was the right approach. This would lead to more mistakes – arguably, it had the first contact tracking application – but he believed it would give better results overall.
The attitude of other senior executives, including former Downing Street consultant Dominic Cummings, matched. According to a public health official who has worked on vaccines and mass testing, the federal government’s mantra is: “No regrets.”
“This is what they all said,” the officer recalled. “They had been making plans for vaccination in October, which seemed a bit promising, but they kept saying, ‘We don’t want any regrets.’
Some may say that waiting for a vaccine to arrive is not a strategy to manage an infection, and Britain’s frustration at delivering it is actually a sign of a failure to control the virus by alternative means. It is also true that even though the UK is starting fast, there is still time for things to go wrong. After all, it came down to a quick start with testing.
Nevertheless, for now, the government hopes to have what it needs. This belief, to be precise, helped to reduce the chances of a vaccine trade war rather than reduce it. Another lesson about the nature of epidemic politics: Without security, there can be no peace.
Over three nights, Sky News will present a series of special programs exploring the UK response to the epidemic.
Govt Crisis: Learning lessons at 8pm on February 9th, 10th and 11th.