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Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre

Volume 821: debated on Monday 25 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they still intend to sell the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre; and if so, what progress they have made.

My Lords, VMIC is a private company and, as such, decisions regarding the future of the facility were made by the VMIC board of directors, not the Government. As Minister Freeman set out in his letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, Catalent announced that it had purchased the VMIC facility on 6 April. It plans to invest £120 million and envisages providing up to 400 additional jobs, which of course further strengthens the UK’s life science ecosystem.

My Lords, within days of my tabling the Question, I discovered that this jewel in the crown of our vaccine policy had been sold off to a major American pharmaceutical company for a great deal of money. The process was not made public. Can the Government assure me that taxpayers will get a benefit from the £200 million that they invested in this enterprise? What safeguards exist against the exploitation of the UK talent and workforce by a company run according to the profit-led motives of American pharmaceuticals?

I am sorry but a number of assumptions behind the noble Baroness’s question are wrong. First, this is a private company that sold off its facilities to a very successful US manufacturer that produced virtually all the Moderna vaccine, with great success. The vast majority of the vaccines that we have used and successfully deployed were also rolled out by private companies. All the employees who work there are being guaranteed their jobs, on the same terms and conditions, and indeed the facility will be expanded. She needs to rethink her questions on this.

My Lords, I think that everyone across the House agrees that we were ill prepared when this pandemic arrived, and planning for future pandemics is very important. The security and investment Bill was intended to secure private facilities that might be needed to secure the future of this country. Was that legislation applied, and was this sale evaluated by the unit in the Minister’s department? If not, why not?

Of course the legislation applies, as it does to all transactions that have taken place in this country since 1 January, so we would bear any appropriate security considerations in mind in any potential call-in. I obviously cannot comment on any particular circumstances, as the noble Lord will understand, but we are happy for this transaction to proceed.

Could the noble Lord explain whether we would be able to contain vaccines in this country from the centre in the event of us needing mass inoculation again?

The centre has not been completed —it is still under construction—so it has not produced any vaccines yet. Obviously whether it does so will be a matter for its new owners. But the Government have a wide range of emergency powers that we may need to deploy in the event of any future pandemic.

My Lords, the sale of the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre has been described as akin to defunding fire brigades after they have extinguished a major blaze. Can the Minister tell us in detail what steps the Government have taken with the sale to ensure that this is not the case and that the UK remains well prepared for any future pandemics?

I assure the noble Baroness that this is indeed not the case. Her question is fundamentally misconstrued. The centre was originally set up a number of years ago to look at the development of vaccines for Ebola; it was a private company then and remains a private company now. It was grant-aided during the pandemic as a precautionary measure in case we needed additional facilities. All the facilities which delivered vaccines were also all delivered by private companies. I am not sure where the Opposition are going with this question. Of course, the facility remains in the UK. It will expand its production and another £120 million will be invested in the facility; it will be able to contribute to vaccine production in the future if we need it.

My Lords, if the Government do this, can the Minister guarantee, first, that if there is a need for a mass vaccination programme, we will have the ability to do it? Secondly, can he guarantee that it will be in the same cost frame as we have seen recently? When compared with the Americans, it seems a very cost-effective way of delivering things.

As I said, there are a number of other sites in the UK which also manufacture vaccines. If the Government need to procure vaccines for a future pandemic, I am sure that we will want to procure from this site, in addition to all the other sites which exist in the UK—all of which, I might add, are in private hands.

My Lords, in his response to my noble friend’s question, the Minister said that he could not give us any explanation of the process which had been followed for reasons which we would all understand. I did not understand why the Minister could not answer that question. I wonder if he could answer it now, as it seems to me that there are no reasons, in terms of commercial confidentiality, why he cannot answer that question.

The investment security unit looked at the transaction, as it does all transactions. Obviously, as the transaction has proceeded, we have decided not to intervene.

The UK has an unfortunately long history of investing in research, developing products and then selling them and not getting the benefit of their extensive exploitation. Can the Minister say whether he thinks that there is any danger of that happening on this occasion? What efforts are the Government making to protect the research facilities which are, after all, the most remarkable thing about the way in which the vaccines were developed in the first place?

This received grant funding—as did a number of other R&D facilities. The noble Baroness makes an important point that we need to ensure that R&D funding is used to develop and benefit companies, individuals and employees in this country. This is one of a number of different vaccine manufacturing facilities and, as I said, it is not yet operational. When the additional investment goes in, I hope that it will be operational in the future. It will offer the UK another excellent, world-leading production platform for vaccines.