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Pfizer boss Ben Osborn: We’ve thousands of vaccine doses ready to go

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pfizer boss ben osborn weve thousands of vaccine doses ready to go
Vow: Ben Osborn, the UK boss of Pfizer

Vow: Ben Osborn, the UK boss of Pfizer

Ben Osborn is surprisingly chipper for a man carrying the hopes of a nation on his slim frame. The UK boss of pharmaceuticals behemoth Pfizer is champing at the bit to deliver the country the most unlikely Christmas present: a coronavirus vaccine. 

A jab developed by Pfizer, with Germany’s BioNTech, is undergoing clinical trials and final-stage data is due imminently. 

The public’s spirits were dampened last week by Andrew Pollard – the head of the Oxford vaccine project that is being driven by rival AstraZeneca – saying the first jabs would not be available until the New Year, with frontline workers prioritised. 

But Osborn gives more cause for optimism. ‘We’ve already got several hundred thousand doses sat in Belgium right now,’ he reveals. 

‘I saw a picture of it the other day. It was great to see the first vial coming off the manufacturing line and it just brought a tremendous smile to my face to see all of this work over the last six or seven months actually now result in a product.’ 

He is quick to point out that nobody will get a vaccine until Pfizer and the authorities are absolutely sure they are safe. ‘I reinforce though, it’s still to finish the clinical trials, it’s still to go through the regulatory process but we do have physical product there available should we be successful,’ he says.

Participants as young as 12 are among the 44,000 taking part in the late-stage human trials. 

So when can the public at large get a Covid jab? Osborn laughs: ‘It’s the question I’m asked every day by friends and family, it’s the question I’m asked by Government most days, we can only go as fast as the science allows us to. We are already manufacturing the vaccine at risk and at scale.’ 

Osborn is insistent no corners will be cut to rush the injection out, but if it’s given the green light, the company has vowed to make 100million doses available this year, and 1.3billion next. From the former, 40million doses are likely to head to the UK, with 20million patients taking two doses each. 

He’s speaking from his home in Surrey over a video call, as outsiders are not allowed in Pfizer’s nearby labs amid tight Covid restrictions. The company, which has 2,500 UK staff, has ploughed nearly $2billion into its coronavirus programme so far, an investment which may have to be written off if the vaccine proves a dud. 

On the subject of cures, 43-year-old Osborn says Pfizer’s scientists in Sandwich, Kent, combed their libraries at the onset of the pandemic for drugs that had not been fully developed that could tackle Covid. Now, early clinical trials have begun on humans for a specialised treatment which would be administered through an intravenous infusion, such as a drip. 

Once proven to work, Osborn’s job will be to scale up its production. He says: ‘It’s tremendously exciting, the hope here is that we essentially come up with a medicine that disrupts the virus and ultimately prevents it worsening the condition of a patient.’ 

A rainbow picture on the wall is a reminder that Osborn’s own world view is shaped by the fact his eldest son has spent his life in the hands of the health service. 

Stocking up: 100m doses will be made available and vaccine vials are already rolling off Pfizer's production line in Belgium

Stocking up: 100m doses will be made available and vaccine vials are already rolling off Pfizer’s production line in Belgium

George, 13, has a rare form of epilepsy which saw him suffer up to 40 seizures a day at the age of three. 

‘I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been in the back of an ambulance blue-lighting across to St George’s and various other hospitals around South-West London and the number of days he spent in the care of the NHS,’ Osborn says. 

‘Thankfully due to some very innovative brain surgery at Great Ormond Street Hospital five years ago and the life-saving medicines he takes every day he is still with us and is thriving. He has got a lot of challenges, he has the mental age of a three-year-old, he requires a lot of care from the NHS and others, but I see first-hand how the NHS and biopharma industry have changed his life and our lives.’ 

Osborn’s two-decade career at Pfizer began as a drugs salesman, before climbing the ranks to his current role, held for 18 months. 

Pfizer’s own image in this country took a hit in 2014, when the Viagra maker bullied its way on to the corporate stage with an attempted hostile takeover of British rival AstraZeneca. 

Its £55-a-share bid raised alarm in Westminster, and proved too cheap for shareholders. Astra has spent much of the last six years proving it was right to go it alone. Its shares, helped by a Covid kick, now sit at around £80. 

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‘It was a different point in time, we were looking more at large-scale mergers and acquisitions,’ Osborn recalls, adding that now Pfizer’s focus is on developing its own treatments in the lab and bringing them to market. 

The company, headquartered in New York, appears on a decent track. Profits took a hit in lockdown as people worked from home and got fewer prescriptions and vaccines, but its Covid jab has been touted at around $20 a dose in the US. Osborn’s belief is that the future of the business, and the economy, hinge on people getting more vaccines for more conditions. 

‘We’ve got to recognise the value of vaccination to public health in the first instance. We’ve got to show with the NHS the value of a healthy population to our economy. 

‘Vaccination can help right from childbirth all the way through into old age but it’s a sad reality that many who should be vaccinated are just not presenting to the NHS to get their jab. 

‘There are many different vaccination programmes, and while we’re world-leading in many areas, we’re starting to see in some cases hesitancy around the value of vaccinations and we have to address that.’ 

Osborn is referring to the vociferous ‘anti-vax’ movement – people who refuse to get themselves or their children vaccinated amid mistrust of the health industry and fears over their safety. ‘I don’t condemn anyone for wanting to understand the safety and efficacy of our vaccines,’ says Osborn. 

‘I point to history that shows the number of illnesses that we’ve been able to essentially eradicate because of vaccination.’ In August, the World Health Organisation declared Africa free of wild poliovirus.

The knife-edge outcome of the hunt for a Covid vaccine could burst the growing anti-vax campaign – or fuel its argument.

This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk

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The Very Group shipping million parcels a week for Christmas

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the very group shipping million parcels a week for christmas

Standing in a giant warehouse on a grey October morning somewhere in the Midlands, it’s impossible to escape the uncomfortable feeling that Christmas won’t be very merry for shops this year. 

From here, Henry Birch – chief executive of £2billion online retail giant The Very Group – is already shipping out a million parcels a week. 

By the week of Black Friday at the end of November, that number will increase to 1.5million packed and loaded by more than 800 staff and 500 brand new robots – machines specifically designed to slash costs and cut the time it takes to get orders out of the door. 

While the ring of high street tills feels increasingly hollow, Birch can say with unflinching certainty that he’s ready for his biggest festive season yet. 

Sales at his Very.co.uk website rose 36 per cent in the three months to the end of June and demand has continued in ‘double digits’ since. 

'Tough call': Henry Birch pressed on with the plan to set up one huge site

'Tough call': Henry Birch pressed on with the plan to set up one huge site

‘Tough call’: Henry Birch pressed on with the plan to set up one huge site

‘We see the strong trading continuing. We’re going into this with momentum and from a position of confidence. Our feeling is that we are going to have a record Black Friday and Christmas – stronger than we’ve ever had before.’ 

Many online firms are already calling it ‘Black November’ – a month of discounts and incentives for shoppers to buy early but, more critically, online. 

Birch explains – for obvious reasons – that ‘consumer sentiment seems to be around staying away from the high street and shopping online’. 

The smooth running of the warehouse is clearly bolstering that confidence. It was scheduled to go operational on the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown on March 23. The Very Group pushed ahead with the plan – beginning from a standing start meant it was easier to assimilate Covid-19 safety measures than at some rival operations – consolidating two existing warehouses in the North West to this one. 

‘We had a tough call to make and we made a decision to go ahead,’ says Birch, whose group also owns the Littlewoods brand. 

‘It was the right thing to do in retrospect. We’ve seen a huge sales growth since March and that’s been underpinned by having this place fully operational,’ he says. 

Skygate, as the 850,000 sq ft warehouse is known, is the company’s shop floor, while the Very website is its shop window. It is strategically placed in the middle of the country, buttressed by East Midlands Airport on one side and the M1 motorway on the other. 

Rail links, vastly improved efficiencies and its central location mean it has cut about a million miles from its transport budget. And, Birch is quick to point out, it has cut carbon emissions too. 

Birch says the company – founded by Merseyside businessman and Littlewoods catalogue creator John Moores, after whom Liverpool’s second university is named – is absolutely ’embedded’ in Liverpool where its head office remains, adding that being in the region is a ‘competitive advantage’ with so many other online firms there. But the retreat from Shaw in Oldham and Little Hulton near Manchester was a painful one, described by one commentator on its announcement as ‘another dark day’ in UK retail but which insiders say was dealt with as sensitively as possible given the circumstances. 

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34794228 8875159 image m 277 1603563446553

Birch, a diplomat’s son who previously ran William Hill’s online gambling business, acknowledges the sophisticated warehouse means he needs to employ around 1,000 fewer staff. The robots that have replaced the product pickers resemble kids’ ride-on sports cars – complete with neon headlights. 

But the company sees automation as the key to success in an arms race in which smaller – or weaker – players in retail will increasingly struggle to compete. 

In the warehouse is a machine that packs up 1,500 items an hour, with more to come following its initial success, and huge conveyor belts that pre-sort parcels rather than leaving the job to distribution firms on the outside. 

‘We can go from receiving an order to getting it out of the door in 30 minutes. The speed of getting things in and out of here is impressive,’ he observes as we walk across the highest mezzanine. Previously, the process took four hours. 

As a result of that, The Very Group will seek to dispatch orders immediately rather than, as many firms do on Black Friday, pushing out delivery promises by a week or more – a delay tactic that is employed in a desperate effort not to turn away trade during such unprecedented demand.

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34794230 8875159 image m 279 1603563470059

During lockdown, demand changed significantly. Very was shipping out 300 jacuzzis and spas each day at the peak of lockdown, dispatching them as quickly as they arrived in the warehouse, and fashion sales fell even though Birch says he managed to increase market share. 

He adds some hope for clobbered fashion retailers: ‘We’re definitely seeing a recovery in fashion – whether people will decide that finally they want to treat themselves for Christmas Day or whenever they can meaningfully go out after that.’ 

But he says its ‘harder to call’ overall consumer spending beyond the further shift online.

‘Anecdotally, I think people are going to want to celebrate Christmas, treat their kids, and have something to look forward to. I think it feels like it will be a normal Christmas, if not a better Christmas in terms of overall trading. 

‘I just think people are going to take more time planning and buying for Christmas this year. They’re going out less, sitting at home online. I think people have got more time on their hands. 

‘They want something to look forward to and at the moment Christmas is something of a light at the end of the tunnel.’ 

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TONY HETHERINGTON: We can’t get our wedding deposit back

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tony hetherington we cant get our wedding deposit back

Tony Hetherington is Financial Mail on Sunday’s ace investigator, fighting readers corners, revealing the truth that lies behind closed doors and winning victories for those who have been left out-of-pocket. Find out how to contact him below. 

Ms A.H. writes: My partner and I booked a wedding reception for 60 guests at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, for July 11. 

The Government restrictions to tackle the pandemic meant this could not go ahead as planned. Pembroke Lodge set a cut-off date for us to decide whether to go ahead, but could not say whether they could provide our wedding at all, let alone how many guests would be allowed. 

We could not continue, so we asked for a refund of our £1,750 deposit, but they refused. 

Cancelled: But Pembroke Lodge in London¿s Richmond Park would not offer a refund of Ms H¿s £1,750 deposit

Cancelled: But Pembroke Lodge in London¿s Richmond Park would not offer a refund of Ms H¿s £1,750 deposit

Cancelled: But Pembroke Lodge in London’s Richmond Park would not offer a refund of Ms H’s £1,750 deposit

You told me that your wedding had been planned for more than a year, with one of the attractions that the reception would be in one of the Royal Parks, in South West London. 

As lockdown restrictions were announced and changed, you were pressed for a decision by June 13, though the management at Pembroke Lodge could still not say what would be allowed or how many guests you could have. 

As your church ceremony was still allowed, you went ahead with that but cancelled the reception and requested a refund. You were offered instead a choice that included postponing your reception until a new date at some point in the future, with Pembroke Lodge adding that its terms and conditions allow no refunds. 

However, when I looked into those terms and conditions, they showed that you and your partner had made the booking, but they did not show who was on the other end of the contract, nor did the wedding firm’s 31-page brochure, or its very attractive website. 

Pembroke Lodge is just a building, not a person or a company. It turned out that the wedding business is operated by a company called The Hearsum Family Limited, headed by chartered surveyor Daniel Hearsum. So I asked him why he expected payment and confirmation of the booking in June, when from his side, he was unable to say whether he could provide any reception at all, and clearly could not offer a reception of the size you had booked a year earlier. He explained that he had withdrawn the original deadline for your decision, but regarded his terms and conditions as a binding contract. I could quibble over this, as the contract fails to name his company, but the more important bottom line was that he could not provide the 60-person reception you had booked. This was not his fault, but nor was it yours, of course. 

And while this toing and froing was going on, the Competition and Markets Authority had been doing sterling work on the subject of wedding bookings, using a 1943 law about ‘frustrated contracts’ which could not be carried out – in this case, because lockdown laws made the booking impossible. 

The CMA investigated one particular wedding firm and allowed it to hang on to certain expenses it had already had to meet, but emphasised that the starting point was that couples were entitled to a full refund, even if the terms and conditions said otherwise. 

This was an impressively fast and fair piece of work from the CMA, but unfortunately a different wedding firm then told lots of others that the CMA had set a ‘benchmark’ allowing them to keep 37 per cent of the original full price, minus an allowance for the time since lockdown began. And Daniel Hearsum cheerfully told me that this meant he could keep the whole £1,750, though he added that ‘we will offer a goodwill refund of £750, if that is an amicable end of the matter’. 

The CMA was startled to be told by me that its boss Andrea Coscelli had supposedly set a firm benchmark allowing wedding firms to keep a fixed percentage of deposits without having to provide a reception. This was completely false, officials insisted, adding, ‘This is not a benchmark. We have never used the word benchmark, and there is no benchmark.’

In a nutshell, wedding firms have to justify keeping a single penny, by showing they have forked out – for example – for such things as flowers, cars, catering staff, food, and so on. Pembroke Lodge management have come up with no figures, saying only that, ‘Between June 2019 and June 2020 we worked hard to prepare and plan for A’s wedding.’ 

They claim: ‘We offered to bear 80 per cent (some £6,500) of the cancellation losses.’ But there is no breakdown of this sum, and nothing to show what Pembroke Lodge might or might not already have spent. 

The outcome is that there is on the table a ‘goodwill refund’ of £750, leaving you £1,000 out of pocket. Only you can decide whether to make the best of a bad job. But I am sure other couples will form their own view, and I suspect it will be closer to the CMA’s wise starting point that if a company can’t do the job, then the customer is entitled to a full refund. 

Will Sainsbury’s refund my card bill? 

E.B. writes: Please help me. I am 80 years old and in poor health, and I cannot get Sainsbury’s Bank to give me a refund. 

The amounts in dispute are £375 and £762, both paid to Fleetway Travel on my Sainsbury’s card.

In each case, Sainsbury’s has told me it has asked Fleetway for a refund, which implies that Sainsbury’s is unaware that Fleetway has ceased trading. 

Money back: Mr B has now received his refund, and a gesture of goodwill as it did take a little longer than usual

Money back: Mr B has now received his refund, and a gesture of goodwill as it did take a little longer than usual

Money back: Mr B has now received his refund, and a gesture of goodwill as it did take a little longer than usual

Fleetway Travel fell into administration in July. 

It did have cash in the bank and other assets worth several million pounds in total, but nothing like enough to pay off the roughly £11 million owed to ordinary customers. 

When a business ceases trading, card issuers have to go through a chargeback process. Under rules set by Mastercard, the business is allowed 45 days to object to the claim, though Sainsbury’s did in fact go past this. 

A spokesman told me you had been reassured that you would not be liable for the money – or for any interest charged – and added: ‘Mr B has now received his refund, and a gesture of goodwill as it did take a little longer than usual.’

If you believe you are the victim of financial wrongdoing, write to Tony Hetherington at Financial Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TS or email tony.hetherington@mailonsunday.co.uk. Because of the high volume of enquiries, personal replies cannot be given. Please send only copies of original documents, which we regret cannot be returned. 

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JEFF PRESTRIDGE: Neil Woodford must be held to account

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jeff prestridge neil woodford must be held to account

Financial justice is rarely swift in this country. The wheels turn excruciatingly slowly and examples of judicial or regulatory procrastination are aplenty. Unfair? Of course. But sadly it seems the wheels will not be speeding up in the near future. 

It took 11 years for customers of Equitable Life to receive compensation after the insurer nearly collapsed, causing their policies to plunge in value. 

Twenty years on from that near meltdown, investors are still valiantly demanding more – £4billion (the amount they lost) instead of the £1.4billion that has so far been handed out by the Government. 

Unfair: Neil Woodford has retreated to his multi-million pound home in the Cotswolds to enjoy the good life

Unfair: Neil Woodford has retreated to his multi-million pound home in the Cotswolds to enjoy the good life

Unfair: Neil Woodford has retreated to his multi-million pound home in the Cotswolds to enjoy the good life

I wish them well although I don’t hold out much hope for them in these challenging times. 

Victims of banking malpractice in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, and its aftermath, are also still fighting for justice with class actions before the courts. A chance of victory is on the horizon, but no more. Legal hurdles need to be cleared and courts to be convinced. 

It also seems that those who lost money in the mismanagement of investment fund Woodford Equity Income – some up to 50 per cent of the value of their original investment – will have to wait quite a while for financial justice to be served. 

Litigation specialists are edging closer to mounting group class actions against companies involved in the fund debacle – namely Woodford’s supervisor Link and wealth manager Hargreaves Lansdown which aggressively promoted the fund right up until it was closed in June last year. 

Harcus Parker appears to be leading the charge with a claim likely to be issued – hiccups notwithstanding – against Link before the year is out. 

But when it presses the green button, success is not guaranteed – and only those investors who support the claim will take a slice of any spoils. It could be another two years before we get to such a position. Frustrating for aggrieved investors of which there are plenty.  

Of course, justice could come sooner if the financial regulator does the job it is paid to do – which is to protect consumers and secure redress for them when they have been victims of financial wrongdoing. Indeed, it would remove the need for any of the class actions. For the past 17 months, it has been investigating the events leading up to the fund’s closure, but it has yet to pronounce on what it intends to do. All it would say last week was that its probe is a ‘priority matter’. 

Unlike the litigation, the Financial Conduct Authority’s focus is not just on Link or Hargreaves Lansdown. It is also looking at the role of Neil Woodford in the fund’s suspension and ultimate demise – and in particular the game of Russian Roulette he played with investors’ money by investing it in a toxic mix of unquoted and illiquid stocks. 

So far, Woodford has not been held to account. Bankrolled by the millions of pounds he earnt from the failed fund – outrageously, a chunk of it while it was suspended – he has retreated to his multi-million pound home in the Cotswolds to enjoy the good life.

He’s even been touting for business in China, although coronavirus seems to have put that project on hold. 

While most Woodford Equity Income investors I speak to want financial justice – delivered either through the courts or via the regulator – they also believe Woodford must carry the can. I agree. 

The regulator’s findings cannot be published soon enough – investors deserve nothing less. 

And when they see the light of day, they must pack a punch that Muhammad Ali would have been proud of. That means financial redress for investors and enforcement action against those responsible for one of the biggest investment fund debacles of recent times. 

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Through their high street presence, post offices generate £1.1billion of revenue for local businesses – as customers use their trip to town to have a coffee or a meal, or use other services. 

As the Post Office says, it is an ‘anchor’ of the high street. 

So why can banks – an equally vital local service – be allowed to shut their branches at a rate quicker than confetti falls at a wedding – without any form of accountability? 

Their presence has a similar galvanising effect on the high street. Do email me if you have any thoughts on this.

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