When we talk about deficits, most people involved in party politics think of democratic deficits or economic deficits particularly in relation to money supply. Rarely does anyone talk about vaccine deficits, which is remarkable when one considers the devastation that could be wrought on a population by a shortage in vaccine supply.
Significant disparities in the access to Covid vaccines across different geographic and demographic populations have been highlighted because of the pandemic. We are now painfully aware that vaccines are critical for disease prevention and have significant social value. It should not be forgotten in our quest to produce enough Covid vaccines for all, that the level of manufacture of vaccines for childhood and young adult vaccine programmes also needs to be maintained during a pandemic, and that vaccine manufacturing platforms can also be used to produce animal vaccines, should the need arise.
Investment in vaccine hubs correlates with a healthier Scottish economy
Vaccine production is a vital component in improving the health of a country and improving health outcomes for everyone, not just of benefit to individuals but also globally. Investment in vaccines will improve the health of the Scottish economy to everyone’s advantage, with a fairer share of any profit being reinvested in the maintenance of regional hubs and associated employment opportunities and training.
Jane Byrne of Biopharma, highlighted this while researching expert opinion on vaccine production, stating that “vaccine production is suboptimal for economies of scale and requires a different model.”
Indeed, Prof Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University suggested that if lessons were to have been learned from the pandemic, that it wasn’t enough to develop Covid vaccines but that “countries will also need to think critically about their manufacturing capacity, and coordinate with other governments to create REGIONAL HUBS that allow for mass vaccine production and delivery.”
The traditional approach of vaccine manufacturers and those attracted by free market principles has been to ‘scale up’ production, which uses traditional engineering and scientific skill sets. This has its downsides.
A ‘free market economy’ does not necessarily support a well-being economy – a well being economy that the SNP Scottish Government has pledged to support and promote. The industries reliance on single source suppliers for equipment, precursor chemicals, consumables and other vaccine ingredients can impact output and profit margins.
If Scotland is to remain at the forefront of Biosciences, we need to get ahead of the game. Why are we using a template for vaccine provision that experts are now stating, it is struggling to remain viable and where large companies are withdrawing from the market altogether? Or is it because of the lack Covid vaccine manufacturers are having to draw up collaborative contracts in order to meet demand? Reduction in the number of vaccine manufacturing companies producing childhood and young adult vaccines is widespread eg.in the US 80% of vaccines are manufactured by just 5 companies ( down from 25. ) This should have set off alarm bells.
In Scotland we have one major manufacturing facility in Livingston. A facility opened by Glaxo in Montrose to produce a vaccine ingredient was closed and the project abandoned. We are therefore, heavily reliant on importing vaccines.
So what’s the alternative to the traditional approach of ‘scaling up’ ? The answer has been proposed by some who are part of the existing bioscience community, who refer to a new innovative platform for vaccine production as ‘scaling out’; i.e. distributing production and associated supply companies over a wider geographical area, creating regional hubs. This ‘scaling out’ approach would create much needed well paid jobs for our young people ( particularly in rural areas), whose scientific & technical skills are more applicable to ‘digital biology’; i.e. their skill set is more geared towards IT and automation than traditional microbiology. This would also produce a return for the public investment in their training and education.
In order to ‘scale out’ vaccine production a new manufacturing platform is needed and data has already been produced that suggests that regional hubs actually could be more of a money spinner than larger traditional vaccine operations. Vaccines currently make less profit for large pharma companies than drug manufacture, and much of the ‘seed’ money for current pharma companies comes from the ‘public purse’, through government spending.
A new climate friendly platform: regional hubs alongside biofoundaries
Distribution manufacturing coupled with highly automated vaccine manufacturing hubs, sometimes referred to as biofoundaries, could provide this new platform. Biofoundaries are highly automated manufacturing units, which can communicate digitally and transfer data across a wide geographical area, and are particularly suited to small scale manufacture, often with the added bonus of reduced wastage.
Scotland could emulate Germany, by establishing biofoundaries in electric powered mobile units, which could be used in more remote areas such as the islands. These smaller units manufacturing and delivering ‘just enough’ vaccine to an area of smaller population, would not only be more environmentally friendly, they would be more economical. In the case of an isolated outbreak of disease, regional hubs/ biofoundaries would nullify the need to stockpile or incur unnecessary waste.
Whilst we are as a nation, constantly striving to achieve climate change targets, we should consider that pharmaceutical industries have a greater impact on the environment than that of the automotive industry globally. Regional hubs providing easier local access would have shorter supply chains, there would be less reliance on other countries and the environmental impact would be significantly reduced.
The issue around vaccine nationalism which we are seeing played out globally; e.g. In the U.S. and India pose a significant threat to non producing countries or countries which do not currently have the sufficient manufacturing capacity. Scotland could be a potential victim to vaccine nationalism with de facto export bans being imposed by countries such as India, as we have had to import vaccines manufactured there. Reported material shortages affecting production and pressures associated with the need to negotiate global supply agreements add to fears of interruptions in supply.
Maintaining strict quality standards and accredited testing protocols are difficult to manage when ‘scaling up’ but with ‘scaling out’ these elements of vaccine production are less problematic, because batch data, complex workflows and the entire production process can be monitored continuously and recorded at an individual biofoundary, and also at a country wide level, increasing reproducibility and consistency of the vaccine produced.
In considering what kind of future we want to look forward to in an Independent Scotland as we transition, we need to learn the lessons of this past year and ensure that the democratic and economic deficits are not the only ones which we need to address. After all, if a vaccine deficit persists, the democratic and economic deficits will not be the only ones that will look unhealthy or potentially cause irreparable damage.
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