The facility had received £215m ($281m) of UK government funding, aiming to create a site combining vaccine research and manufacturing under one roof as well as accelerate the response to coronavirus. However, the government now says production of COVID-19 vaccines is sufficiently covered by industry and the country does not need the extra capacity.
Catalent will take on the site and invest up to £120 ($160m) in completing the centre: promising 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.
While the sale to a private company is controversial, the VMIC says the sale to Catalent will allow the site ‘stay true to the original purpose of strengthening the UK’s vaccine manufacturing capability’.
400 employees at the site
While the VMIC pre-dates COVID, having been founded in 2018 to fast track the development and manufacture of early-stage vaccines for known diseases as well as responding to emerging threats, it ramped up efforts in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Catalent has the resources to ensure this facility can become operational and start contributing to the UK’s and Europe’s vaccines landscape at pace,” said Professor Robin Shattock, head of Mucusal Infection and Immunity at Imperial College London and chair of the board of directors at VMIC Ltd.
“I would like to recognize employees at VMIC for their passion and commitment during the pandemic and the success that their work brought to the UK. In Catalent, we’ve found a new owner who shares the vision for what we wanted to achieve and has safeguarded the interests of the workforce.”
The facility is located to the south of Oxford at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, which is home to more than 40 life science companies. It will employ more than 400 people and support public and private organizations seeking to develop and manufacture biotherapeutics, according to Catalent.
Under the VMIC’s plans, the 7,000 m2 facility was set to include flexible cleanrooms and single-use bioreactors, able to deliver 70m doses of pandemic vaccine over its first six month period.
Catalent told us, however, that there is not yet any manufacturing equipment installed at the facility. "It is too early to determine which specific types of medicines will be manufactured at the facility, nor in what volumes," explained a company spokesperson.
"Catalent’s investment in this facility is driven by the opportunity to support and accelerate the development and supply of the rich pipeline of more than 2,000 biotherapeutic and vaccine programs across Europe, including approximately 500 programs in the UK.
“This acquisition allows Catalent to collaborate with the rich academic and biomedical science community centered around Oxford, with its world-class talent, and will result in a facility that provides opportunities to transform innovation into real treatments for patients across the UK, Europe, and beyond,” said Mike Riley, president, Catalent Biotherapeutics.
“Our priority is to complete construction as soon as possible to be able to commence customer programs in 2022. 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 programs currently underway.”
"Once completed, the facility will be capable of producing vaccines. In a future pandemic, vaccine developers will be able to call upon manufacturers such as Catalent, to rapidly produce vaccines in the UK."
Catalent already has four facilities in the UK focused on the development and manufacturing of oral dose forms, located in Nottingham, Swindon, Haverhill and Dartford; as well as an additional clinical supply site in Bathgate, Scotland.
The best way to support UK biomanufacturing capabilities?
Last month saw protestors object to proposals to sell off the site: citing concerns that a not-for-profit centre should not be sold to a profit-making company.
In February, an editorial in the BMJ called the proposals to sell the site 'baffling': saying that 'maintaining robust vaccine research, development and manufacturing capabilities should be a cornerstone of any national security strategy'.
But Steve Bates, CEO of the UK BioIndustry Association, notes the VMIC started as a partnership between the public sector, industry and academia: and not as a government-owned facility.
"As the Government’s procurement policy on vaccines evolved through last year, the initial 2020 rationale for the expansion of VMIC into a factory no longer held, so the Government took the decision not to continue with the further investments needed to bring VMIC online," he said, speaking yesterday. "This triggered VMIC’s Board to push ahead with the sale of the incomplete facility."
He supports the investment made by Catalent in the site and the UK as a whole.
"The life sciences sector is a truly global sector, where partnerships and collaboration stretch across borders, the purchase of the VMIC facility by a globally capable medicine manufacturer is welcome. Catalent have a heavy US based manufacturing capability, they have the track record of, and ability, to invest further in the site and team.
"It is testament to the appeal of the UK and the Oxford life sciences cluster that a global player wants to increase its manufacturing footprint in the UK."