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18 May 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:31am

The government is taking a necessary gamble on the Oxford vaccine

After a month without confirmation, ministers are investing millions to be ready to mass-produce the vaccine if it passes clinical trials.

By Ailbhe Rea

After weeks without confirmation, there came an answer to one of the big unanswered questions around the government’s strategy for leading the UK out of the coronavirus crisis: would it be prepared to gamble on the success of the Oxford vaccine? 

The answer is a resounding yes. 

In April, the Oxford vaccine team made headlines by announcing that its coronavirus vaccination could be ready as soon as September. Professor Sarah Gilbert, who is leading the team, was widely praised for a series of clear and impressive media appearances to promote the message. 

At this point, Professor Gilbert was clear about what she needed from government. As she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on 19 April: “What we need from government is support to help us accelerate the manufacturing. There aren’t any manufacturing facilities in this country that at the moment can make very large amounts of the vaccine. We have a pilot plant in the university that can make small numbers of doses and that’s what we’re using for the first clinical trials, but we need to go to a much bigger scale. 

“Those companies need to have new equipment, they need to have their staff trained in using new protocols and new quality control assessments. The companies that we’re going to be working with are going to need to stop doing what they would normally do and make this vaccine instead. So we need support for them all to make sure that that’s done in a fair way while they’re trying to do something that’s really very important.”

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In effect, the Oxford vaccine team has embraced media coverage about its work and promoted an optimistic message about the vaccine’s prospects, courting public support and building hype around the project, in the hope of bouncing the government into taking a gamble and investing millions of pounds in preparation for the mass-manufacturing of a vaccine that might, of course, not work.  

On Sunday, the government met this request, as the Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, pledged an additional £84m to accelerate the development of the vaccine, on top of a previous £47m. “This new money will help mass-produce the Oxford vaccine so that if current trials are successful we have dosages to start vaccinating the UK population straight away,” he said. 

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He also announced that a deal has been struck, with financial support from the government, between Oxford and UK-based pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, so that the latter will be poised to make 30 million doses for the UK by September, if the vaccine passes clinical trials. 

It might seem obvious that this would be a gamble worth taking by government: a sum like the above is not a huge amount in terms of government spending, and if successful would reap many times the cost in both saved lives and economic returns. But it wasn’t guaranteed: despite government funding towards both the Oxford and Imperial College London trials, it has taken a month since Professor Gilbert’s request for the government to confirm that it would allocate funds towards a mass-manufacturing process that may never get off the ground. Now the government is firmly behind the Oxford team, as well as providing further financial support to trials at Imperial.

But this shouldn’t be taken as as a definitive answer to the second big question around the government’s assumptions as to how we permanently exit this crisis. 

Sharma’s announcement on Sunday included the important proviso that the Oxford and Imperial trials may both be unsuccessful in producing a coronavirus vaccine, as he announced that six drugs with the potential to treat the virus have entered initial live clinical trials. Meanwhile, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, is today announcing further measures to expand swab testing, ahead of the official launch of the UK’s contact-tracing programme. 

On the question of whether it is banking on a vaccine, a treatment, or sufficiently expansive testing and tracing as its routes out of the crisis, the government’s approach, for the moment seems to be to invest heavily in all three routes.