The UK is assessing whether to join an EU programme to help secure a potential coronavirus vaccine in what could mark a bellwether for post-Brexit cooperation.
In what the Daily Express described as a “Brexit backtrack”, UK officials are thought to be considering the advantages of being part of the EU plan because the bloc would have greater purchasing power to strike deals with multinational drug companies.
Whether the benefits would outweigh a broader political desire to cut ties with Brussels is reportedly still being evaluated.
The UK has already secured a bilateral deal with AstraZeneca, which is based in Cambridge, but there are fears that some initial vaccines may not be effective and the UK reserves the right to be involved in all projects in the EU’s 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 said. “Discussions are now ongoing with the UK.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Work is ongoing to determine whether and how the UK participates in the EU vaccine strategy.”
Global competition for effective coronavirus vaccines and treatments is growing. The US has bought up the world’s supply of remdesivir, a medicine produced by the US pharmaceutical group Gilead initially to treat Ebola. The EU is in talks with US company Johnson & Johnson.
The European commission says its scheme is designed to drive “efficiency and solidarity”, ensure swift access to vaccines for member states and their populations, and make them available for everyone in the world.
According to a senior Whitehall official quoted in the Financial Times, there has been some “back and forth” on the issue within Whitehall. “The EU has set an ‘end of the week’ deadline for about the last three weeks, but it keeps coming and going,” the official told the paper. “Ultimately, the decision will get made in No 10.”