Sam Bright investigates the concerns of a whistleblower who says that the UK’s flagship vaccines manufacturing hub is shrouded in secrecy

A walk-on ceiling collapsed in the UK’s flagship Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) in July 2021, Byline Times can exclusively reveal.

A whistleblower with knowledge of VMIC contacted Byline Times to express their concern with the secrecy of the project – raising the collapsed roof as an example. Indeed, this incident has never been mentioned by VMIC or the Government publicly.

VMIC was conceived in 2018 as a flagship endeavour to prepare the UK for future pandemics. Initially intended to open in 2023, at a 74,000 square foot facility in Harwell near Oxford, its creation was accelerated due to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, and is due to open this year.

Structured as a non-profit enterprise, VMIC had three founding members – the University of Oxford, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Imperial College London – and was heavily backed by Government investment. Indeed, largely thanks to Government vaccines investment during the COVID-19 pandemic, the taxpayer has ploughed £206 million into VMIC so far.

However, the Government faced a widespread backlash last year after it was announced that VMIC was being put up for sale. In particular, public health experts have warned that, while the centre was originally intended for early-stage vaccine development – involving a high degree of uncertainty – a private owner would not have the same incentive to invest in risky schemes.

“The real risk is we’re going to lose the ability to do that early phase stuff that actually told us that you could use the adenovirus to make really good vaccines. There’s a whole host of new vaccine platforms at very early stages of development that will need to be evaluated in what was the original vision for the VMIC,” John Bell, who has held a series of influential roles in the Government’s COVID response, has said.

“Expecting industry to make the necessary long term investments is naive. The history of vaccination includes numerous examples where a mix of short term industrial priorities and lack of long term political planning compromised the ability of research, development, and manufacturing hubs to attract private and public investment,” scientists have further argued in the British Medical Journal, in relation to the proposed sale of VMIC.

However, the Government has pushed ahead with the sale, and reports from the Telegraph suggest that VMIC will be sold to the US pharmaceutical giant Catalent.

Byline Times was contacted by a whistleblower a number of months ago, who said that VMIC has always been shrouded in secrecy, and that officials working on the project had no indication that it was going to be sold.

In particular, they cited the collapse of a ceiling at the centre in July 2021, which they said “delayed its delivery and added substantial costs to its completion”. They said the ceiling collapse may well have been the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, in the decision to sell the centre.

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Byline Times subsequently filed a Freedom of Information request with UK Research and Innovation, the results of which confirmed that the ceiling collapse had taken place. According to an incident report created after the event, “the installation method was not in accordance with the specification detailed in the manufacturer drawings and… There was a lack of adequate communication, co-operation, and co-ordination during the design. This centred around not reviewing the suitability of the complete design and materials with reference to relevant structural assessments and not following manufacturer’s specifications.”

As their name suggests, walk-on ceilings are designed to accommodate people walking along them, so this collapse could potentially have caused a serious injury. It’s not known whether this was the case.

A VMIC spokesperson said: “I can confirm that VMIC is for sale and has entered a period of exclusivity with a preferred party, following a broader sales process. We remain committed towards a deal that brings continued vaccine manufacturing capability to the UK.

“We cannot add any further information at this point as the details are commercially sensitive to the interested party.”

A Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson said: “We are supporting VMIC Limited’s board following their decision to pursue a sale of their company. In that process, the Government’s primary objective is to ensure UK retains a strong, domestic vaccine manufacturing capability.”

No further comment was offered on the collapse of the ceiling.

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