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Sale of UK vaccine manufacturing plant branded ‘ridiculously short-sighted’

The VMIC, pictured while under construction in September 2020, has received £200m in public investment (Richard Pohle/The Times/PA)
The VMIC, pictured while under construction in September 2020, has received £200m in public investment (Richard Pohle/The Times/PA)

The sell-off of the UK’s future vaccine manufacturing site has been branded “ridiculously short-sighted” after a US pharmaceutical firm announced it had bought the factory.

In a statement published on its website on Wednesday, Catalent said it had acquired the site in Oxfordshire but did not state how much it had paid.

The Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC), which is being built with the intention of helping to prepare the country for future pandemics, was reportedly put up for sale at the end of last year despite receiving more than £200 million in public investment.

The investment includes £90 million of cash the UK Government ploughed into the project to accelerate its construction during the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a visit to the site in September 2020, while the UK was on the cusp of a second wave of Covid-19 infections, to speak to those building the plant and scientists who were set to work in it.

Daisy Cooper MP, the Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman, said: “Selling this vital infrastructure is a ridiculously short-sighted move that risks leaving us less prepared for the next pandemic.

“Vaccines can take decades to develop and selling this facility shows this Conservative Government’s lack of long-term planning.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson bumps elbows with scientists during his visit to the construction site of the new vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) in September 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson met scientists during his visit to the construction site in September 2020 (Richard Pohle/The Times/PA)

“This facility was purpose-built with more than £200 million worth of taxpayers’ money to produce vaccines.

“With this Government wasting eye-watering amounts of public money and writing off money spent fraudulently, the Tories must come clean on how much this facility has been sold for.

“The Prime Minister himself underlined how important this centre would be to protect against Covid and future pandemics. The public has a right to know why he has now changed his mind.”

Labour, as part of its living with Covid plan published in January, said it was against selling the plant.

Catalent, which is based in New Jersey, said it plans to invest up to £120 million to complete the building of the facility.

The investment will pay to equip it with “state-of-the-art capabilities for the development and manufacture of biologic therapies and vaccines, including mRNA, proteins, and other advanced modalities”, the firm said in a statement.

It is expected that the facility will employ more than 400 people.

Mike Riley, president of Catalent Biotherapeutics, said: “Our priority is to complete construction as soon as possible to be able to commence customer programmes in 2022.

“This deal ensures the VMIC site, when completed, will stay true to the original purpose of strengthening the UK’s vaccine manufacturing capability by bringing innovation to the sector and getting more vaccines to the clinic.”

Science minister, George Freeman, in a letter sent to MPs and seen by the PA news agency, said the Government had agreed with the decision by VMIC Ltd, a private company, to sell up to a global, vaccine manufacturing outfit.

“My officials and I are supportive of the VMIC board’s sale decision,” he said, in a letter dated April 6.

Mr Freeman said the vaccine taskforce was “confident that in a future pandemic, Catalent would have the ability to produce vaccines in the UK, for the UK”.

“Catalent have offered all VMIC employees a role in their company, on the same terms and conditions as they currently have,” he added.

A Government spokesman said: “The Government hasn’t sold the facility.

“VMIC Limited is a private company and has always been a private company.”

The spokesman added: “This investment by Catalent is necessary to keep the facility open into the long term.”