The Guilty Men Behind UK’s Lockdown

By Paula Jardine | TCW

Part I

On January 23, 2020, the day that the Chinese authorities sent their dramatic message to the world by putting the sprawling mid-China city of Wuhan under lockdownthe Biotech company Moderna signed a $1million funding agreement with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to deliver a vaccine that would go into human clinical trials within 16 weeks.

Serious efforts had been under way at the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare SARS-CoV-2 a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) in the run-up to this Covid-19 vaccine announcement. But the WHO Emergency Committee, convened on January 22 by Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had declined to co-operate.

The WHO committee’s demurral presented a problem for CEPI’s chief executive officer Dr Richard Hatchett, who was at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos in mid-negotiation with Moderna. The vaccine, which was jointly owned by the US National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), had been designed on January 13, the day Chinese authorities announced the first death from Covid pneumonia in Wuhan.

In the UK, in parallel with efforts to persuade the WHO to declare a PHEIC, a government-sanctioned ‘Precautionary Sage meeting on Wuhan Coronavirus’ took place the same day, January 22, in advanceof the first coronavirus Cobra meeting scheduled for January 24. The Sage meeting was co-chaired by Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Officer, and Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer. Also participating by telephone from Davos was Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and co-founder of CEPI.

The minutes of that Sage meeting were made public only after a disclosure request by the legal team challenging via judicial review the legality of the UK lockdown. The Johnson government put the country under house arrest on March 23, 2020 following a lobbying campaign directed at his special adviser Dominic Cummings, who eventually recommended the lockdown.

There is no mention of the Wuhan lockdown in the Sage minutes, indicating that the meeting took place before the dramatic escalation of events in China on the evening of January 22 when authorities announced its imposition from the stroke of midnight.

Sage’s terms of reference make clear that it is activated by Cobra to provide technical advice to the government in support of Level 2 (serious) and Level 3 (catastrophic) emergencies. Yet this first meeting took place when no emergency officially existed. Its timing demands answers to two questions. Who initiated the activation of Sage? And was it arranged in expectation of a PHEIC being declared by the WHO on that day? A third matter of public interest is what contact was there between Farrar and Whitty or Vallance before the SAGE meeting?

Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the Spectator last week that the Sage scientists had been given too much power to decide if the country would lock down or not, giving evidence that the minutes of the Sage meetings had been edited in the run-up to lockdown to suppress contrary opinion.

The minutes for the preliminary meeting do not mention lockdown but they do recommend the Chief Medical Officer, Whitty, should consult behavioural scientists on the proportionality of the Public Health England isolation plan for suspected cases and their contacts, and for advice on how to communicate uncertainty. Furthermore the names of four observers have been redacted from the Sage minutes for the January 22 meeting, which were revised on January 23. The names were omitted altogether from the addendum which includes a statement saying ‘Participants who were Observers and Government Officials were not consistently recorded therefore this may not be a complete list.’

In the absence of a PHEIC, the Wuhan lockdown on January 23 provided the event that CEPI so badly needed to catalyse its vaccine announcement. Might it have been recommended to the Chinese government by an old friend of Sir Jeremy Farrar, Dr George Gao?

CEPI’s Richard Hatchett told the Davos press conference that they were in contact saying, ‘Dr George Gao, the current director of China’s CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] served on CEPI’s scientific advisory committee. We have reached out and are in discussions but those discussions are not as mature as those partnerships I announced today.’

Without a PHEIC, CEPI’s plan to move the Moderna vaccine directly into Phase 1 human trials was in jeopardy on two fronts. In his book Spike  Farrar explains, ‘if the globe’s top health agency doesn’t deem an outbreak a global emergency, the world tends to shrug its shoulders. A declaration gets things moving, unlocks funds, galvanises leaders – ultimately it saves lives’.

Another lesson learnt from the 2014 Ebola PHEIC cited in CEPI’s preliminary business plan of 2016 was that the Ebola vaccine trials could have commenced sooner had the WHO declaration been made six months earlier.

Farrar made his own contribution to the efforts to secure a PHEIC declaration. The weekend before Davos, in a breach of protocol by a peer reviewer, he was informed about a paper submitted to The Lancet by researchers from the University of Hong Kong suggesting the new virus could spread between humans and claiming evidence of asymptomatic transmission.

The paper concerned SARS-CoV-2 detected in a family of six who visited Wuhan in early January. Another family member was infected on their return home and a ten-year-old child who tested positive for the virus had no symptoms. This last case could arguably have been interpreted as evidence of immunity against the virus, but wasn’t.

In Davos, Farrar said that people without symptoms who are infected with the virus could possibly spread it before they knew they were sick. Other scientists believe this is a speculation with little or no foundation.  Farrar later told the UK Parliament that humans had no immunity to SARS-CoV-2. (In March 2020, CEPI awarded the University of Hong Kong $600,000 to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.)

Farrar provided the information about the Hong Kong study to the WHO ahead of the January 22 Emergency Committee hearing. According to the account in his book, he then strong-armed The Lancet into an early release of the paper.

But althoughthe PHEIC was eventually declared by the WHO on January 31, it didn’t seem to help CEPI’s fundraising for its Covid vaccine programme. Government contributions trickled, rather than gushed, in.On March 6, 2020, on the back of a UK government announcement that it was contributing £20million to CEPI’s Covid-19 vaccine plan,CEPI issued an urgent funding call, setting a target of $2billion. 

CEPI’s CEO, Dr Hatchett, was already setting out the vaccine as the only way to exit lockdown. He said: ‘It is increasingly clear that containment measures for Covid-19 can only slow down its spread and the virus is now entering a stage of unprecedented threat in terms of its global impact. While we heartily support the range of public health measures that governments are putting in place to protect their populations, it is critical that we also invest in the development of a vaccine that will prevent people from getting sick in the first place.

‘Working as part of the global response, CEPI has committed $100million of its own funds and moved with unprecedented speed to initiate a programme of vaccine development with the goal of having vaccine candidates in early-stage clinical trials in as little as 16 weeks. However, these funds will be fully allocated by the end of March and without immediate additional financial contributions the vaccine programmes we have begun will not be able to progress and ultimately will not deliver the vaccines that the world needs.’

In a portent of what was to follow around the world, Italy imposed local lockdowns in Padua and Lombardy on February 22, 2020, following the first death attributed to Covid-19 outside China. Ten days after having been admitted to hospital with another medical condition, a 77-year-old man from the small town of Vo’, with no known links to Wuhan, was reported to have died in Padua from, or perhaps ‘with,’ pneumonia said to have been caused by Covid-19.

While Professor Neil Ferguson, a Sage member, and other researchers at Imperial College London were involved in modelling the impact of social distancing measures in February, their researchers were also involved in a key Italian study in Vo’ which claimed 40 per cent of the residents were asymptomatically infected. Although they tested positive, they neither had, nor developed symptoms, perhaps suggesting instead that they had immunity.

As lockdown mania spread, it was game on for CEPI. In June 2020, it signed a $22million contract with an Italian pharmaceutical glass manufacturer, the Stevanato Group, which by fluke is headquartered in Padua, to produce vials for bottling 2billion doses of Covid-19 vaccinesThe Stevanato Group, which now provides vials to 90 per cent of the current Covid vaccine programmes, made its stock market debut in New York last year, raising $453.5million in capital.

It plans to use the funds to build new two factories, one in the US and one in China. The stock market launch is also a windfall for the Stevanato family who will ‘reduce their holding in the company’ to cash in.

While the lockdowns have been catastrophic for ordinary people, destroying livelihoods, damaging children’s education and fuelling the inflationary hurricane that is the cost of living crisis, for CEPI they were mission accomplished. As Cummings recalled in testimony to a Commons committee, the next round of lobbying began immediately: ‘I have got a text from Patrick Vallance, when he texted me directly on, I think, 24 March . . . where he says explicitly, “I want to set up a vaccine taskforce, and do it outside the Department of Health and Social Care”.’ Three days after putting the country under house arrest, the UK government pledged another £210million for CEPI’s vaccine programme.

Dr Hatchett revealed in Davos on the day of the Moderna press conference that discussions were under way between CEPI and the Chinese. In the next instalment I will examine how their relationship has developed.

Part II

ON April 27, 2020, following partnership discussions between the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the Chinese government which began prior to the Wuhan lockdown, CEPI announced it was opening a ‘representative office’ in Shanghai. In a statement made in conjunction with one Mr Quan Zhang, the Director of Science and Technology Commission of Shanghai Municipality, CEPI said its purpose was to ‘seek co-operation with China in the prevention and control of pandemic diseases including the funding of public health research projects, research and development of vaccines, and international scientific, technology and development co-operation and exchanges’. 

Explaining that CEPI already had offices in Oslo, London and Washington DC, chief executive officer Dr Richard Hatchett said: ‘CEPI is a global organisation, working on global solutions to global issues.’ Adding the CEPI Shanghai Representative Office to that list would ‘facilitate our collaboration with China’ and they looked forward ‘to working closely with Chinese partners in the fight against COVID-19’.

CEPI’s 2016 preliminary business plan sets out its intention ‘to build a growing community of product developers with pipelines for new vaccines, diagnostics and drugs for many high-burden diseases that primarily affect citizens living in the poorest countries.’ It was, it said, continuing the work of governments and philanthropies in pursuing the 2000 Millennium Development Goals.

The challenge CEPI set for itself was ‘to ensure robust and effective private sector participation in future outbreaks’.  According to the World Economic Forum’s then Head of Global Health and Healthcare, Arnaud Bernaert, ‘The current model to develop and test vaccines is unsustainable.’

The plan outlined a new vaccine finance model, saying that ‘industry will require a reliable risk/reward sharing system, a prioritisation system for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), and a clear development pathway for emergency-use vaccines’. It was based on three operating principles.

The first principle of this ‘CEPInomics’ is to ensure what they describe as ‘equitable access’ by making the vaccines ‘affordable and available to low and middle income countries’. The second and third principles follow the maxim ‘Manus manum lavat’, the one hand washes the other, the second being that vaccine developers’ direct and indirect costs must be fully reimbursed and the third that any economic benefits that might accrue on products it sponsored must be shared with CEPI. The plan didn’t envision CEPI-sponsored vaccines becoming profitable, as the intended recipients of CEPI’s beneficence are the poor of the tropics, but in the event that they did, ‘agreements between CEPI and the developer will ensure either that CEPI’s investment is reimbursed or that profits are shared through royalties or other mechanisms’.

On the same day CEPI trumpeted the plan for its Shanghai office, it made a second announcement awarding $3.5million in funding to Clover Biopharmaceuticals Australia, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sichuan Clover Biopharmaceuticals Inc (China)  to commence phase 1 testing of a Covid vaccine. Clover, with no products yet on the market, is a loss-making company founded by Dr Peng Liang, a former biochemistry professor at Richard Hatchett’s alma mater Vanderbilt University, in Nashville Tennessee.

It so happens that the Clover vaccine is another novel gene-fusion therapy. It uses Trimer-Tag™, a gene therapy technology platform developed by Dr Liang that was patented in 2007 by his first company GenHunter and licensed to Clover.  Like Moderna and BioNTech’s mRNA gene therapies, it was not originally intended for use as a vaccine, having been conceived as an advanced therapy against autoimmune diseases, cancer, Aids, osteoporosis and heart disease.

By November 2021, CEPI’s cumulative investment in Clover amounted to $397.4million,  representing one of its largest investments in a single company. This included funding for the scaling-up of manufacturing capacity, although Clover, like Moderna and BioNTech before it, lacks a licensed product. It is currently seeking regulatory approval of its vaccine in China and Europe and from the WHO.

Meanwhile CEPI is separately funding two other clinical trials to evaluate mix-and-match booster vaccination strategies to combat the ever-evolving virus. In the now crowded Covid vaccine market, it envisions the Clover gene-fusion vaccine will be used under yet another emergency use authorisation as a universal ‘booster’. One potential competitive advantage the Clover vaccine has over the mRNA vaccines is that it requires only standard refrigeration storage and transport, making it useful in the largely untapped market in the low and middle income countries CEPI was intended to provide for where Covid vaccination rates hover at a meagre 16 per cent.

‘While multiple safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines are now available we know that Covid-19 is here to stay, so further R&D [research and development] is needed to inform vaccination strategies that will help control the virus in the long-term,’ said Dr Hatchett. ‘I’m pleased to further expand CEPI’s R&D partnership with Clover which will maximise the potential impact of this vaccine as we seek to protect those most at risk from Covid-19, wherever they are in the world.’

Clover’s vaccine is itself boosted, using a ‘broad adjuvant platform’ patented by a financially troubled American company called Dynavax Technology. Adjuvants are substances added to vaccines to increase the immune response to weak antigens. Clover and Dynavax announced their collaboration agreement on March 24, 2020. It was one of five partnerships Dynavax entered into as CEPI’s Covid vaccine project ignited.

On August 13, 2020, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) awarded Dynavax a $3.4million grant. A month later Dynavax appointed a member of CEPI’s Scientific Advisory Committee,  Dr Peter Paradiso, to its board of directors. 

In early 2021, Dynavax obtained a $99million ‘forgivable’ loan from CEPI, repayable on vaccine sales. Three months later it secured another $77million, bringing CEPI’s total investment in Dynavax to $176million.

CEPI’s combined commitment to the Clover/Dynavax vaccine is $573.4million, which is more than a third of the $1.5billion it eventually succeeded in raising for its Covid vaccine project.

The huge investment in the Clover/Dynavax vaccine and these companies doesn’t end with CEPI. On June 30, 2021, Gavi, the Bill Gates-linked Vaccine Alliance, signed an advance purchase agreement with Clover for 414million doses of its Covid vaccine. (Such agreements, which transfer risk from the supplier to the purchaser, have become routine for the purchase of pandemic vaccines. They are justified in emergency management circles on the premise that it is better to be over- than under-prepared; the practice is referred to as ‘no regrets’ buying.)

Dr Hatchett said: ‘Today’s announcement of an advanced purchase agreement between Gavi and Clover will secure hundreds of millions of doses – pending an Emergency Use Listing from WHO – for globally fair allocation and will further support low-income and middle-income countries so that they can protect the most vulnerable members of their societies against this deadly virus.’

Covid-19, the ‘deadly’ disease Dr Hatchett speaks of, is known to have a mortality rate of less than 1 per cent, comparable with influenza, and an average age of mortality of 82.

To date, Clover has received $224million from Gavi. In December 2021, Unicef also signed a procurement agreement with Clover, conditional upon its vaccine achieving Emergency Use Listing from the WHO.

Clover Biopharmaceuticals Ltd (Cayman Islands), which is estimated to have a market valuation of $2billion, made its international public offer on the Hong Kong stock exchange in October 2021. This is not tied directly to profit on the CEPI-sponsored vaccine, making it unlikely to fall within the scope of a sharing agreement with CEPI.

In January 2022, Clover began building a new research and development centre in Shanghai. Dr Nicholas Jackson, the managing director of CEPI’s Shanghai office and its head of Vaccine R&D, joined Clover as its President of Global Research on February 1, 2022.

In the next instalment I will examine the involvement of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in CEPI’s pandemic vaccine programme.

Categories: Corruption

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