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By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) -U.S. biotech firm Moderna will build a new research and manufacturing centre in Britain to develop vaccines against new COVID-19 variants, other respiratory illnesses and help improve readiness for any future pandemics.
The agreement will see Moderna make a minimum R&D investment of 1.1 billion pounds ($1.35 billion), Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman said, adding it would have the capacity for 250 million vaccines a year if needed.
The facility is expected to start producing shots in 2025, with Britain committing to buy Moderna's vaccines for the next decade.
Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines, which use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, were among those deployed in Britain to tackle the crisis and enable Johnson to reopen the economy from stringent lockdowns.
Moderna Chief Executive Stephane Bancel said the priority was to develop a shot combining refreshed boosters against COVID, flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
"By building a plant in the UK, we are also providing the UK Government - which has a long term partnership with us, with this agreement - with the ability to be pandemic ready," Bancel told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
"That capacity that we're building in the UK, that they are committed to buying the product for the next ten years, this can be reallocated very quickly to anything they want."
Britain's health ministry said mRNA technology could be applied to other areas, such as cancer, flu, dementia and heart disease.
"Our investment will guarantee jabs in arms against some of the toughest viruses out there, bringing us to the forefront of the fight against future threats," PM Johnson said in a statement.
Britain in December said it had ordered 60 million more Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses to be delivered in 2022 at 2023.
Bancel said he aimed for a variant-specific booster to be ready by August, ahead of Britain's planned autumn booster campaign and Moderna later on Wednesday said the shot had showed a strong neutralizing response to fast-spreading Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.
The success of its vaccine has led the company to look to expand globally through new manufacturing facilities planned for Kenya, Canada and Australia.
Bancel said that the construction of the UK centre should start this year, and the location was close to being finalised.
($1 = 0.8163 pounds)
(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Tomasz Janowski and Elaine Hardcastle)