“This is not like the butcher: it is not, whoever invests first will be the first to receive vaccines.” With that statement by European Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, the battle between AstraZeneca and the European Commission about the supply of corona vaccines started. The EU was furious that it is getting far fewer vaccines than previously promised, while the British were just getting their promised amounts.
What Kyriakides did not add: London not only stood in line at the proverbial butcher earlier, but was also willing to pull out the wallet and put down hefty sums before it was clear whether the butcher would have meat at all. And the Netherlands had the chance to stand next to the British in April and May last year.
Oxford is looking for partners for vaccine production
Halix in Leiden is little more than a building when the corona crisis breaks out. The company is brand new, the building has just been completed. It is ultramodern and suitable for producing large quantities of vaccine relatively quickly, but it is still empty for the time being. Ideal for the University of Oxford that is looking for partners to produce its own corona vaccine in February last year. That is the vaccine that would later be taken over by pharmaceutical pharmaceutical AstraZeneca.
Initially, there is hardly any money available in Oxford. The British can spend about £ 400,000, too little to actually pay Halix. But all parties involved expected that the money would eventually come. The corona crisis spread around the world and vaccines were, according to many, the only realistic solution. Investments in that industry were inevitable.
In the United Kingdom, all doors will indeed open for Oxford University from the beginning of April. The British government is already setting up a vaccination task force. Top people from the pharmaceutical industry are hired to get companies with substantial subsidies and political pressure to cooperate.
Investment of tens of millions
At the end of April, the United Kingdom will invest about 75 million euros in the development and production of the Oxford vaccine, according to the sources that the NOS spoke about 25 million of that would go to Halix. With that British money, Halix can, among other things, purchase the equipment to produce vaccines in a 200-liter barrel. But Oxford wants more, it wants to go further in 1000 liter barrels, in order to be able to make really large quantities of vaccine.
This still requires an investment of around 10 million euros. The Oxford researchers do not expect that money will also come from London. The British government wants the large-scale production of vaccines to take place on the British island itself and is therefore investing in the company Oxford Biomedica in mid-May. For the production at Halix in Leiden, the scientists are therefore turning their eyes to the Dutch government.
Omtzigt informs Rutte
One of the scientists involved ends up at CDA Member of Parliament Pieter Omtzigt. On April 28, Omtzigt is sitting with Prime Minister Rutte in the Torentje. He presents Rutte with the concrete request from Oxford University to invest that 10 million euros.
The written request that is sent to Rutte a day later has been partly viewed by the NOS. It states that there is a chance that the vaccine will never be successful, but that the signs so far are very favorable.
Furthermore, the letter is a fairly exact prediction of the future we are in now. “There will probably be a huge demand for vaccines if they pass the tests successfully. Most likely, the quantities of available vaccines will be limited for several months. To avoid major delays, production capacity must now be increased.” The letter recommends calling Halix director Alex Huybens.
Deal with AstraZeneca
Two days after the conversation between Rutte and Omtzigt in het Torentje, AstraZeneca and Oxford University announce that they are going to work together to make the vaccine available worldwide. According to those involved, this makes investing at the same time more complicated, but also more attractive. More complicated because there are more hijackers on the coast, more attractive because a large international pharmaceutical company has linked its name to the vaccine.
Dutch officials spoke with vaccine maker Halix in early May. They ask the company to come up with a concrete plan stating what they will do with the money.
That plan never comes. In answers to previous parliamentary questions, the Ministry of General Affairs said that Halix quickly indicated that an investment “was no longer an issue”. The deal with AstraZeneca may have everything to do with that. At Halix it was probably estimated that the pharmaceutical company would make the necessary investments.
The Netherlands called the wrong one
Nevertheless, those involved say that the Netherlands could still have invested at that time. The contracts between AstraZeneca and Oxford had not yet been finalized and the production space at Halix was still available. The Ministry of Health only targeted the wrong player. Ultimately, it was not Halix about this investment, but Oxford University, the party on whose behalf Pieter Omtzigt sat in the Torentje. No official has ever called the Oxford scientists themselves, the instruction in the letter to call Halix has been followed.
The investment of 10 million euros had not yet automatically given the Netherlands access to the vaccines produced in Leiden, but after such an investment, the Netherlands would have been in the front row to reserve the production space for the first years as well. An investment and reservation often go together in the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, the Netherlands could have set the requirement that the vaccines would initially be for personal use. Meanwhile, according to the European Commission, Halix produces about 6 million doses of vaccine every month, enough to vaccinate 3 million people.
The fact that the Netherlands missed an opportunity here is now proven in practice. The United Kingdom has not yet exported any vaccine to the European mainland. The British thus invested early in Halix and probably stipulated that they were entitled to part of the vaccines produced.
British demanded priority
Two weeks after the Torentjes talks between Omtzigt and Rutte, the British also put millions in the Oxford Biomedica company. In doing so, the British government stipulated a priority position on the supply of vaccines that would come from that factory. The Netherlands could have made a similar investment with Halix.
Halix is now called “the mystery factory” in the European press. No one knows exactly how many vaccines have been made in recent months, but according to sources from the NOS, it must be about 15 million. Even less is known where they went. Earlier this month, rumors spread in Brussels that millions of vaccines were stored inside and there were fears that they would go to the UK.
What is certain is that the British had a claim to production from the factory. AstraZeneca CEO Soriot said in February in the European Parliament: “When we took over the Oxford vaccine, we inherited a number of contracts. The British government had invested in production in the UK, but also with our partner in the Netherlands.”
The European Union disagrees with that ruling, which has now made Halix part of a complicated joust between AstraZeneca, the EU and the United Kingdom. That joust would probably never have become as complicated as the Netherlands had invested.
Looking for production capacity
Minister De Jonge founded the “inclusive vaccine alliance” at the beginning of June 2020, one month after the talks with Halix. Soon after, the Netherlands, together with Germany, France and Italy, concluded an agreement with AstraZeneca on the supply of vaccines.
De Jonge said in the Volkskrant last month that at the time he saw how the United States and the United Kingdom already reserved production facilities in Europe. “Had we done that, we might have had more vaccines earlier. We have not had enough in our minds that we should have been more involved in the production capacity.”
Last month, De Jonge also appointed a special envoy who still had to look for production capacity in the Netherlands. He concluded that that production capacity cannot be increased in the short term.