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Ministers say dark forces threaten our vaccine supply – but a summer of bragging may be more likely

The only vaccine Britain ordered in very substantial quantities was the Oxford jab and that has suffered production problems.

Article originally published by The Telegraph. Hargreaves Lansdown is not responsible for its content or accuracy and may not share the author's views. News and research are not personal recommendations to deal. All investments can fall in value so you could get back less than you invest.

The only vaccine Britain ordered in very substantial quantities was the Oxford jab and that has suffered production problems

Does Britain have enough vaccine or hasn’t it? It’s really the only thing people want to know – but the government is not saying.

For more than a month now, officials have been fending off journalists’ questions about vaccine supply with dark mutterings about national security. Loose lips sink ships. Do you have an encrypted Telegram account like Michael Gove? I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you – that sort of thing.

On Wednesday, under mounting pressure, Whitehall went public with its James Bondery. It was not the stories of rogue states and criminals tracking vaccine consignments that had been whispered about only a week before but a finessing of the same theme.

“Everyone in the world wants these vaccines, and if other countries see how much we are getting they are likely to put pressure on the drug firms to give them some of our allocation,” explained one Whitehall official, whose eyes (I imagine) were as weary and all-seeing as George Smiley’s own.

Le Carré’s Smiley carried the world on his shoulders and so it is with Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister known in Downing Street as the “human sponge”. No other politician has his capacity for absorbing criticism on behalf of colleagues without either losing their cool or dobbing them in.

At a bruising meeting of the Commons science and technology committee on Wednesday Mr Zahawi was accused of being “phobic” about releasing the vaccine supply statistics.

“It's not about wanting to withhold information from a committee, although there is a consideration here because the whole world is looking to acquire vaccines at the moment,” he responded before cracking just a tad. “The more we say – or, dare I say, show off – about how many vaccines [or] batches we're receiving, the more difficult life becomes for the manufacturers.”

Showing off about vaccine supply? Who could possibly have been doing that? And might such bragging already have taken a toll on Britain’s vaccine campaign?

The only people to have bragged about vaccine supply are ministers themselves. Rewind to last summer and you could be forgiven for thinking that we would soon be drowning in the stuff.

On August 14, the Business Secretary Alok Sharma made the third in a string of world-beating vaccine supply announcements with news of a further “90 million” doses.

“It means the UK has placed orders for six experimental vaccines, taking its potential stockpile to 340 million doses,” explained the BBC’s Fergus Walsh. “In theory, there should be enough for everyone in the UK to get five doses.”

Back then ministers were not just saving Britain but saving the world. “Today's agreements will not only benefit people in the UK but will ensure fair and equitable access of a vaccine around the world, potentially protecting hundreds of millions of lives,” said Mr Sharma.

Speaking on LBC radio on September 7, Health Secretary Matt Hancock added that Britain’s deal with Oxford AstraZeneca for no fewer than “100 million doses” was already bearing fruit.

“We have got 30 million doses already contracted with AstraZeneca. In fact, they are starting to manufacture those doses already, ahead of approval, so that should approval come through ... then we are ready to roll out.”

So what’s happened? Why are GPs across the country screaming for more vaccine and why are the Chief Medical Officer and Health Secretary saying that vaccine supply is the “rate-limiting” factor in the UK rollout?

The truth is that production of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab – the only licensed vaccine we have ordered in very substantial volumes – has run into difficulties.

Manufacturing the vaccine in wholesale quantities is a delicate process that takes seven to eight weeks. If something goes wrong you have to start over – and it has gone wrong on multiple occasions. “We were trying to fly the plane and build it at the same time,” said Sir Mene Pangalos of AstraZeneca, a company that is new to large scale vaccine production.

Entire batches had failed and the “crude” process of brewing the vaccine had been refined at least five times to smooth out the problems, he added. The firm had also struggled to overcome the UK's lack of manufacturing capability, an issue that “must be addressed”.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has been buying up the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as if there is no tomorrow. Israel is using the Pfizer jab and the EU signed a contract with the company for 200 million doses in early November with an option to bump that up by half again.

The Pfizer vaccine is also the mainstay of the US campaign. Across the pond, it is now being rolled out at a rate of over 700,000 doses a day and the campaign aims to reach 100 million people by April.

The Prime Minister has said he wants the four top priority groups in Britain inoculated by mid-February (about 14 million people) and Mr Zahawi is confident we will have enough product to meet that target with a mix of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs, subject to first shots being prioritised.

But it is going to be tight. AstraZeneca has said it can get a total of 40 million doses to Britain by the end of March. At the start of the year, approximately 4m doses were bottled and awaiting regulatory sign-off. A further 16 million doses were finished in a bulk format. The rest – about half – still needed to be manufactured.

Other vaccine makers, including Pfizer and Moderna, may have thought Britain had much stronger vaccine supplies than this. If after the “showing off” of the summer they prioritised other countries who could blame them?


This article was written by Global Health Security Editor and Paul Nuki from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

Article originally published by The Telegraph. Hargreaves Lansdown is not responsible for its content or accuracy and may not share the author's views. News and research are not personal recommendations to deal. All investments can fall in value so you could get back less than you invest.

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