LONDON, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Britain says Brexit will not slow down its COVID vaccine programme, even if it ends up leaving the EU single market in two weeks with no free trade agreement.
Vaccines are an absolute priority and military planes are on standby to fly them in if needed, the government says.
But with ports expected to face delays whether or not Britain reaches a trade deal, companies that make and distribute vaccines are taking extra precautions. Here is what they have said:
So far, the only COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in Britain is made by Pfizer in Belgium, and requires sophisticated logistics to transport and store at ultra-cold temperatures.
Britain began deploying Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine on Dec. 8 and has already taken delivery of 800,000 doses. It has 40 million on order and hopes for “millions” by the end of 2020.
A spokesman for Pfizer UK said robust plans were in place to ensure supplies would not be interrupted in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“We are continuing to work with the UK government in this process and we are confident of our capability to deliver doses,” he said.
Logistics firm Agility, which is involved in distribution of vaccines, said Britain got a head start by being the first country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, ahead of the EU which is expected to give approval on Dec. 23.
“I think that those weeks have certainly helped to allow them to get things in... There’s a lot available in the country already,” Eric Ten Kate, Agility Vice President of Life Sciences told Reuters. “People are pretty confident that (Britain is) well positioned and that approval was the smart move to do.”
The backbone of Britain’s COVID-19 inoculation programme in coming months is expected to be a homegrown vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, although it has yet to receive approval and trial results have raised questions about the most effective dosing strategy.
Pending approval, as many as 4 million doses could be ready for use in Britain before the end of 2020, with 100 million on order.
The drug substance is made in Britain by Oxford Biomedica and Cobra Biologics and then sent to other companies for “fill-and-finish” packaging. An all-UK supply chain would see fill-and-finish being provided by Wockhardt in Wales.
Although some early doses were sent to the Netherlands and Germany for packaging, they are set to be back in Britain before the end of the year.
An AstraZeneca spokesman said of possible Brexit fall-out: “We have built the supply of the COVID-19 vaccine into our already well-established contingency plans.”
A vaccine developed by Moderna using technology similar to Pfizer-BioNTech is likely to be one of next to receive approval, but the British government waited until late-stage results were published in November to order 7 million doses.
Britain does not expect to take delivery of the first doses until early spring 2021, which the government says is the same timetable as other countries in Europe.
France’s Valneva has only just started clinical trials, but if its vaccine is successful it could play a major role in Britain, under a deal to supply 60 million doses with an option for 130 million more. It will begin producing its shot at its facility in Scotland from January, without waiting for trial results.
“We are like every other biopharmaceutical manufacturer, we are relying on many, many different suppliers,” Chief Executive Thomas Lingelbach told Reuters. Preparations included the stockpiling of raw materials, moves to ensure availability of storage and the readying of permits to get supplies imported. He added the government had been “very supportive”. (Reporting by Alistair Smout Editing by Mark John and Peter Graff)