Vaccine campaigners have accused Boris Johnson of a “warped” understanding of the crisis after he joked that “greed” and capitalism had contributed to the success of the jabs.
The Prime Minister made the comments at a private meeting of Tory MPs, but then hastily sought to backtrack as he praised AstraZeneca for supplying the Oxford vaccine at cost.
Following Mr Johnson’s comments to the 1922 Committee on Tuesday night, the Global Justice Now campaign, which is campaigning for wider international access to jabs, hit out at the Prime Minister.
The organisation’s director Nick Dearden said: “The Prime Minister will call this comment a slip of the tongue, but it’s an incredibly revealing remark.
“It shows just how warped his understanding of this crisis is.
“We have a vaccine because of massive public investment and the remarkable work of scientists at publicly-funded universities. We’ve rolled it out because of our incredible National Health Service.
“Greed, however, drove big pharma to privatise this work and withhold doses from millions worldwide to protect their profits.
“And, if Boris Johnson keeps letting it happen, there’ll be more coronavirus mutations that could send us back to square one.”
Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester and former health secretary Andy Burnham said: “Celebrating ‘greed’ in a pandemic? Same old Tories.”
Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts said: “It’s in the throwaway comments that the PM reveals himself. Greed will destroy us.”
Labour MP Barry Sheerman said the comments were “no surprise” as “everyone who knows our Prime Minister well understands his admiration of selfishness and greed'”.
Former shadow cabinet minister Richard Burgon said Mr Johnson was “wrong” as “billions in public funds went into developing the vaccines”.
“Now the vaccine patents must be waived to ramp up production and save lives all across the world,” the Labour MP said.
The comments also risk inflaming a row with the European Commission over access to vaccines, with the organisation’s president Ursula von der Leyen threatening a ban on exports of jabs to the UK because it is angry that AstraZeneca has not supplied the doses expected for the bloc.
Home Secretary Priti Patel defended the role played by pharmaceutical companies.
She told Sky News: “The Prime Minister always acknowledges the strong success we’ve had in terms of the vaccine, not just the rollout, which is incredible, but also our ability as a country to develop the vaccine, the role that pharmaceutical companies and science and technology has played in that.
“And actually I think that speaks to a great strength we have as a country.
“And linked to that, of course, look at our contributions to Covax, the international scheme, to get the vaccine supplies elsewhere and demonstrate that we are a very, very strong force for good internationally when it comesto vaccines, science and pharmaceutical development.”
Jane Halton, co-chairwoman of the Covax initiative which is working to provide jabs for low and middle-income countries, said the UK has been “altruistic” with its investment in vaccine development.
Asked about the Prime Minister’s “greed” comments which were first reported by The Sun, Ms Halton told Times Radio: “I haven’t heard those remarks and I would suggest that it’s never wise to comment on the alleged comments of somebody.”
But she said the UK’s support for vaccine research and development had shown a “pretty significant level of altruism and forward thinking demonstrated here because we would not have these vaccines now if we hadn’t made those investments”.
“It’s because of that money that was spent, that we can now vaccinate people.”
Meanwhile, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney speaking this morning said it is “not a good precedent” for the EU to block vaccines leaving Europe.
Mr Coveney says that he echoes the Taoiseach’s position that it is “not a good precedent for the EU to be deliberately blocking the exportation of product out of the EU”.
“I think that’s a very dangerous precedent to set,” he said.
"Vaccines are manufactured often as the result of multiple ingredients from multiple parts of the world and different countries and if we get into the space of blocking the exportation of certain products linked to vaccines that results in a retaliation from other trading blocks.
“We could slow down the pace of manufacture and that doesn’t make sense”, added Mr Coveney.
Referencing UK Prime Minister Johnson’s comments, but Mr Coveney said; “we’re operating under a different system”.
“We’re operating under an EU centrally managed system of pre-purchased orders, and while that system has come in for a lot of criticism – some counties such as AstraZeneca have not delivered what they promised and what they signed up to in a contract.
“The suspicion is that they have delivered for other countries – and that’s why there is so much tension around this in the EU”, he told the Pat Kenny Show.
The minister added; “There’s tension between the UK and the EU at the moment – The EU has exported over 40 million doses of the vaccine so far”, but says he expects Ireland to be in a better position in the vaccine roll-out by mid-summer.”