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Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, who became a prominent figure in the UK government’s pandemic response, has taken a role as senior medical consultant at Covid vaccine maker Moderna.
The UK’s former deputy chief medical officer, who gained celebrity status among the British public during the pandemic and was affectionately known as “JVT”, took up the role as part-time adviser to Moderna in May, according to official filings.
As part of his duties during the pandemic, Van-Tam was a member of the Vaccine Taskforce, which the government said made decisions on “all vaccine supply contracts and major investments in manufacturing and clinical opportunities”. He stepped down from his government role in March 2022.
Widely praised for his communication skills, Van-Tam often deployed elaborate sporting analogies to portray various stages of the pandemic. Describing the vaccine rollout in December 2020, he said: “It’s clear in the first half, the away team gave us an absolute battering . . . In the 70th minute we’ve now got an equaliser. OK, we’ve got to hold our nerve now, see if we can get another goal and nick it.”
Van-Tam’s move follows controversy over previous “revolving door” moves between government and business.
In 2020 there was an outcry after former UK chancellor Sajid Javid took a high-paying role at JPMorgan. A scandal erupted the following year when it emerged that former prime minister David Cameron lobbied members of the government on behalf of Greensill Capital.
Nearly a third of all new jobs taken by former ministers and senior officials had a significant overlap with their previous brief, according to research conducted earlier this year by civil society group Transparency International.
Rose Whiffen, senior research officer at Transparency International UK, said the government should prohibit ex-senior civil servants and ministers from taking up positions where they have had substantial responsibility for policy that is relevant to the hiring company.
“Currently, there are only threadbare safeguards against abuse of the revolving door between the public and private sector,” she said, adding this created a “risk of privileged information being misused for commercial benefit”.
Moderna said the appointment was in accordance with the health department’s rules for officials who take up jobs in industry. Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said the professor’s “significant experience and expertise as a specialist in influenza” will be a “vital asset” to the company. The part-time consulting role is for the whole global business, not focused on the UK.
Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine was approved for use in the UK in January 2021. The government initially bought 17mn of the Moderna vaccine, compared with 100mn doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, and 40mn of the Pfizer jab. However, in late December it agreed to buy a further 60mn Moderna doses, alongside 54mn from Pfizer, to last through 2022 and 2023.
Last year the government signed a 10-year partnership with the US pharmaceutical company to boost research and development of mRNA vaccines in the UK, including building a factory that could produce up to 250mn vaccines a year.
Mani Foroohar, an analyst at Leerink Partners, said Moderna had been “spending aggressively” in the hope that the market for Covid-19 vaccines rebounds, and that in many countries, including the UK, the vaccine market was largely driven by government sales.
“In markets that don’t have a commercial component that are largely government-driven it is not entirely uncommon for pharma companies to hire former regulators and government officials in an attempt to strengthen their government relations,” he said.
The government has stipulated that, as part of his role at Moderna, Van-Tam is not allowed to lobby the Department of Health and Social Care or its executive agencies and is not allowed to have any involvement in bids relating to the health ministry or its executive agencies until March 2024, nor is he supposed to use privileged government information to further business interests.
Jordan Urban, a researcher at the Institute for Government think-tank, said people should not be “overly concerned” when specialists leave government to go into industry. However, he said the broader problem was that the government’s rules “have no teeth” and “the individuals to which they apply can ignore them with no penalty”.