London — At the Global Vaccine Summit he hosted in June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was keen to remind the audience that it was a British doctor, Edward Jenner, who pioneered vaccinations.
Now it is the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford that is leading the drive for an inoculation against the coronavirus.
The pandemic has blown every leader off course, but Johnson has been among the hardest hit. The UK recorded the worst death toll in Europe and the biggest economic meltdown mere months after leaving the EU. Johnson concedes there will have to be an inquiry into his handling of it.
That is why the UK coming up with the first universally recognised barrier against Covid-19 is the ultimate prize for a government that after another humiliating policy U-turn needs to redeem itself somehow. Brexit, after all, was about showing the world the UK was better off alone even during a crisis.
Johnson is the eternal optimist, Covid-19 vaccine is the modern-day Holy Grail and the UK finds itself the knight leading the quest for a globally accepted inoculation. The reason, despite missteps over procuring personal protective equipment for health workers and testing for the virus, is because of its history of medical research.
It explains why ministers moved quickly to take control of the push, according to conversations with scientists, company officials, and government advisers.
“The UK is looking for a place in the world as an independent entity and has an opportunity to show real leadership in the vaccine space,” said John Bell, professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, who is working with the government on its vaccine programme.
Given the government’s track record during the pandemic, the risks are high. There has been little sign of public backslapping since the team at Oxford — the alma mater of Johnson and his two Tory predecessors — became a clear front-runner in July, a month after the prime minister’s reminder of the UK’s scientific pedigree.
The Jenner Institute was well positioned to start work on a shot after years of work on a related coronavirus, Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.
So when Johnson’s government found the university was talking with US pharmaceutical companies about manufacturing the potential vaccine they balked at the idea and began to plot a strategy to keep it British.
GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca were the obvious onshore manufacturers. Glaxo was conflicted, but a partnership with Astra was quickly agreed over one weekend in April. By the end of that month, the UK drugmaker and Oxford announced a deal that would see Astra take on the manufacturing and large-scale distribution. The government reviewed all the paperwork before it was signed.
But betting the house on one vaccine against a virus that has killed over 775,000 people and sickened more than 21-million would not be enough if the UK was going to ensure it had access to a successful jab.
Health secretary Matt Hancock called Kate Bingham, a venture capitalist in the health industry who had been helping the government look for new drugs and vaccines, to see if she would lead the effort.
Bingham was largely on board with chairing an official UK vaccine task force, but wanted one thing made clear: it does not matter how many deals the UK does, there still might not be a vaccine at the end of it. In a call with Johnson on May 6, Bingham agreed to take up the gig.
“I really wanted him to understand that this was a heroic uphill struggle,” Bingham said. “Even pathogens we know lots about — HIV and malaria — we still don’t have vaccines for. So I had to make sure that there weren’t unrealistic expectations of how doable it would be.”
There are broadly four main approaches being taken to producing a Covid-19 vaccine. The UK strategy is to ensure Britain has enough potential doses from each bucket in the hope that one will be successful, but not to hoard supplies. On the contrary, part of the “Global Britain” brand is to share its success with the world.
So far, Bingham’s task force has bought a medley of 340-million doses from the four groups after two more deals on Friday.
Britain’s desire to respond to the pandemic on its own terms has been clear from the start. The country opted out of joint EU procurement programmes for personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, which led to outcries from National Health Service workers. Ministers have repeatedly said the EU programmes yielded little benefit to participants.
In a call with health ministers from Germany, France and Italy in early June, Hancock made clear the UK was not interested in joining the group’s alliance to procure shots either, with the Netherlands taking its place. A few weeks later, the UK also ruled out joining the EU’s €2bn vaccine programme, because it would have prevented Britain from having a direct hand in negotiating deals.
In Brussels, the move was seen in keeping with the UK’s belief it could perform better than the EU when acting alone, according to two EU officials with knowledge of discussions between the two sides.
“It seems we’re putting ourselves in danger of continuing to do the same thing and getting the same result: not what we wanted,” said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “Maybe you get lucky and they just happen to get all the aces turning up.”
If the Oxford-Astra vaccine is approved before other credible alternatives, it will give Britain a much-needed shot in the arm to its reputation. With no guarantees, the best the UK can do is be prepared should things go wrong, said Bingham.
Indeed, Johnson promised in his New Year message a month before Brexit that the UK would be the “the best place on Earth” for “quality education and cutting-edge science”. Much is riding on that second pledge.
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