Capitalism and greed gave Britain its success in vaccinating its population, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told lawmakers in a closed meeting, praising pharmaceutical companies for developing a shot in record time.
The comments, reported by The Sun newspaper, were made by Johnson during a Zoom meeting and could inflame a row with the European Union which is considering a ban on vaccine exports to Britain.
"The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed my friends," The Sun newspaper quoted him as saying during a meeting with Conservative lawmakers to rally them to support coronavirus restrictions.
The Sun reported that he later added: "Actually I regret saying it" and that he asked lawmakers repeatedly to "forget I said that". An unidentified source told The Sun that he was not discussing the row with the EU.
Johnson's Downing Street office declined an immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.
Asked about the comment, Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was not in the meeting.
"The Prime Minister always acknowledges the strong success that 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, and the role that pharmaceutical companies and science and technology has played in that," Patel said.
Britain is gradually easing restrictions under a plan underpinned by the success of the national vaccination campaign, which has seen more than 28 million people receive a first vaccine dose.
On Tuesday, an EU official said the European Commission will extend EU powers to potentially block COVID-19 vaccine exports to Britain and other areas with much higher vaccination rates, and to cover instances of companies backloading contracted supplies.