The UK’s push to secure and administer hundreds of millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines is estimated to have cost up to £11.7bn so far, according to the public spending watchdog.
The government has signed deals for five vaccines providing up to 267m doses at an expected cost of £2.9bn, with non-binding agreements with two other companies set to bring total provision to 357m doses, the National Audit Office said in a report published on Wednesday.
Additional costs including those associated with sponsoring trials, distributing and administering the vaccines lifted the total spend to £11.7bn.
The total cost was “likely to change” as officials obtained a clearer understanding of the deployment and quality of the vaccines, the report noted.
Crucially, the figure “does not cover the costs of any future potential multiyear vaccination programmes”. It is still unclear for how long the jabs protect against Covid-19, but experts have said vaccination campaigns will have to be repeated.
The report also said that many drugmakers had requested immunity in the event of legal action, meaning taxpayers may have to pay the costs of claims against them. In four out of five contracts, no cap has been applied to the amount that the government could pay in the event of a successful claim against the pharmaceutical companies in certain, unspecified circumstances.
In negotiating with the EU, drugmakers pursued a similar approach. Both the UK and the EU rejected requests for complete immunity.
Of the £11.7bn, £6.2bn is expected to support the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s procurement and manufacturing activities, and £4.9bn to support administration of the vaccines through the Department of Health and Social Care. Additionally, up to £619m will fund global vaccine research efforts, £548m of which has been earmarked to enable low and middle-income countries to access vaccines through the development aid budget.
The business department agreed upfront payments of £914m in the five contracts, the NAO said, which were used to start manufacturing and support trials. Only one of the contracts signed by the ministry provides for a full refund of the upfront sum if the vaccine fails to clear regulatory hurdles. Two contracts offer a partial refund, and two others do not allow for refunds.
By comparison, Operation Warp Speed, the US government programme to produce and deliver 300m doses of safe and effective vaccines by January 2021, has invested more than $10bn in vaccine development, but that sum only includes deals struck by the federal government with drugmakers, and not distribution after the medicines reach hospitals.
Europe is expected to pay billions of euros for the advanced purchase agreements it has struck for vaccine procurement, but the prices paid are confidential, and would not cover distribution in member states.
Meg Hillier, a Labour MP and the chair of the public accounts committee, said it was “clearly right” to back a number of different candidates.
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“Nobody could have known which vaccines would work, or when they might be approved,” she said. “But the accountability arrangements were highly unusual — even though huge sums of money are involved.”
It is not clear how many people have received the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, which the UK was the first country in the west to administer outside of clinical trials earlier this month. The health department said it would start publishing detailed data on the numbers “as soon as possible”, and that tens of thousands of individuals across the UK had already been vaccinated.
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler in New York
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