The US-headquartered pharmaceutical company Catalent has bought Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) that is under construction in Oxfordshire, UK. The government-supported facility was intended to be the country’s first non-profit vaccine producer. Catalent plans to invest £120 million to finish building the centre, which is expected to employ more than 400 people when it eventually opens.

VMIC was founded in 2018 by the University of Oxford, Imperial College and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, backed by £66 million from the UK government in addition to support from three industrial partners. Originally scheduled to open in 2022, the centre was to develop vaccines for global distribution and preparing the UK against future pandemics.

In May 2020, the government announced a further £131 million investment to speed up construction of the site, aiming to bring it online by mid-2021 to help with the Covid-19 response. However, with numerous pharmaceutical companies now producing coronavirus vaccines on a massive scale, government sources believe that VMIC’s surge capacity is no longer required.

‘Our priority is to complete construction as soon as possible to be able to commence customer programs in 2022,’ said Catalent’s president for biotherapeutics Mike Riley in a statement. ‘We will then integrate its capabilities within our existing network of biologics facilities across Europe to offer a flexible range of manufacturing, technology and development solutions for the pipeline of thousands of development programmes currently underway.’

Critics of the sale have accused the government of neglecting biological threats, noting that vaccine manufacturing capabilities should be at the heart of national security strategy. Writing in the British Medical Journal, a group of medical experts have described VMIC as ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the UK’s Covid-19 response. The decision to sell it off is ‘difficult to justify on strategic, public health, economic, or reputational grounds’, they argued.

However, Catalent’s entry into the UK’s ‘bioprocessing ecosystem’ was welcomed by the Bioindustry Association (BIA), which highlighted the company’s track record on similar projects. ‘Significant additional private and public sector vaccine manufacturing capability is coming online in the next few years in the UK,’ said BIA chief executive Steve Bates. ‘The UK already has more capability than was identified at the start of the pandemic in early 2020, which can support future global pandemic responses, and the creation of other innovative therapies and medicines for the benefit of patients.’