Mass vaccination quickly reduces hospitalisations and deaths, giving people the confidence to go back to their normal pre-coronavirus lives. However, in the manner of a doctor trying to persuade a patient in denial, the UK’s Chief Medical Officers have warned that “vaccine shortage is a reality that cannot be wished away”.
So, should politicians just accept this fatalistic advice that vaccine shortages are inevitable? I’d argue not. Just before New Year, the Serum Institute of India announced they have already produced 50 million doses of the Oxford vaccine under licence. India’s success undermines gloomy statements that nothing can be done to end the shortages.
If the UK targeted the same figure of 50 million doses to be ready during March, that would be enough to protect for all of the vulnerable, with doses left over for other essential workers like the teachers, police officers and the armed forces. Together with an accelerated distribution network using the measures in a recent paper I co-authored, the UK could quickly and confidently reopen our schools and businesses. We could finally treat coronavirus just like we treat seasonal flu.
So, given India has 50 million doses ready to go now, what are the barriers to the UK achieving the same by March? We know the Oxford vaccine manufacture process consists of two stages: first ‘bulk manufacture’ where the vaccine virus vector is grown in thousand-litre bioreactor tanks over weeks, then second ‘fill / finish’ where the bulk vaccine product is decanted into sterile glass vials, sealed and labelled.
However, despite 15 million doses of bulk vaccine product being ready, no finished vials of vaccine have been shipped from the UK factory so far. So all that stands in the way of getting 50 million doses during March, and all our lives getting back to normal, is fixing the ‘bottle-neck’ in the vaccine ‘fill / finish’ stage. Though some reports have stated that the supply of glass vials is a limiting factor, a podcast released by the Vaccine Taskforce in October states these media reports are incorrect.
If this is true, this means that the only issue standing between the UK and 50 million doses during March is increasing the rate of the ‘fill / finish’ process. This last part of the vaccine manufacturing process takes place at the Wockhardt factory in Wrexham. Though the Guardian reported the staff there had worked through Christmas, according to a report from a Welsh MP, the facility is only contracted to operate from Monday to Friday.
Given the massive cost of lockdown restrictions, moving this factory to 24 hour production and paying large bonuses for skilled workers to temporarily relocate to support this would yield huge economic returns. The simplest way to achieve this would be for the government to change its existing contract with Astrazeneca, offering them a large financial incentive for these first critical 50 million doses to be delivered before or during March.
Even with a huge mark-up of £100 a dose, the £5 billion cost of the first 50 million doses would be less than a quarter of the amount spent on the NHS Test & Trace System during 2020. This should be the easiest spending commitment any politician could ever make. The Prime Minister simply shouldn’t accept the answer “no” from his doctors on getting 50 million doses. India did it! So can the United Kingdom. Let’s get this pandemic done.
Jonathon Kitson is an independent researcher and forecaster. He has written on defence procurement, forecasting and vaccination strategy. He tweets @KitsonJ1.