The UK is in talks to join an EU plan to secure supplies of potential coronavirus vaccines in an important test of the co-operation required to tackle international emergencies after Brexit.
London is assessing whether the advantages of the European bloc’s bargaining power to strike deals with international drugs companies outweigh the broader political desire to sever ties with Brussels, UK officials said.
The negotiations come as an international battle escalates to buy up coronavirus remedies, often long before their effectiveness has been confirmed. The US has poured billions of dollars into Covid-19 vaccine development and purchased much of the world’s supply of remdesivir, a coronavirus treatment produced by the US pharmaceuticals group Gilead.
The EU plans to spend billions of euros on its own vaccine purchase plan and is in talks with Johnson & Johnson of the US, while Britain has already struck its own bilateral deal with Cambridge-based AstraZeneca.
The UK was invited to join the EU vaccine scheme under the Brexit withdrawal agreement in force since it left the bloc in January, which gives London the obligation to finance — and the right to be involved in — all projects under the EU’s 2014-2020 budget.
“We have reached out to the UK, inviting it to express its interest if it wants to participate in the joint EU approach established by the vaccine strategy,” the European Commission told the Financial Times. “Discussions are now ongoing with the UK.”
At the launch of the scheme last month, the commission said it was designed to drive “efficiency and solidarity” and ensure “swift access to vaccines for member states and their populations while leading the global effort” to ensure vaccines were available for all.
A UK government spokesperson confirmed that “work is ongoing to determine whether and how the UK participates in the EU vaccines strategy”. One official said the government was in principle “open to it” and that a decision could be made as soon as next week.
Alok Sharma, the UK business secretary, whose department runs the government’s vaccines task force, will consider the decision over the weekend, according to other officials.
A senior Whitehall official said there had been some “back and forth” on the issue within Whitehall as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy weighed up the political sensitivities around joining — or staying out of — the EU scheme.
“The EU has set an ‘end of the week’ deadline, for about the last three weeks but it keeps coming and going,” the source said. “Ultimately, the decision will get made in Number 10.”
In March the government declined to seek associate membership of the EU’s pandemic early warning system, despite the NHS Confederation’s Brexit Health Alliance urging continued participation.
At the time, UK officials said that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, had been overruled by Downing Street because Brexit negotiators did not want to be accused of seeking more than the basic “Canada-style” trade deal.
The EU announced last month that it would strike advance purchase agreements with drug companies to secure for its citizens supplies of promising vaccine candidates from among the scores being developed worldwide.
The rush by rich countries to buy up potential vaccines has stoked fears among some health experts and campaigners that poorer nations will be squeezed out. The European Commission has insisted the EU scheme will make provision for them, arguing that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”.
Other non-EU countries such Norway and Singapore have also backed efforts to ensure any vaccines are equitably distributed. The UK is among donors to a Brussels-led pledging effort that has raised almost €16bn for coronavirus vaccines, testing and treatment.
The EU vaccine scheme money will come from a €2.7bn emergency fund, with additional support available through loans from the European Investment Bank.
The potential benefits to London of joining the EU initiative include large-scale purchasing and greater financial muscle that could help it do deals with a larger number of drug companies and bargain for lower prices than those one country could achieve.
Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy announced last month they had agreed to buy up to 400m vaccine doses from AstraZeneca, a deal that officials say is being folded into the bloc’s wider effort.
If the UK were to join the scheme, it is unclear what would happen to its participation after the current EU budget and the Brexit transition period expire at the end of the year. Its continued involvement could add another complication to the already fraught negotiations on the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship, should further financing be required.
London’s involvement in the scheme might also cause friction with some EU member states, given tensions over Brexit.