Boris Johnson reportedly made the comments about the COVID vaccine rollout to Tory colleagues, but added: “I regret saying it.”
After striking a sombre tone at his Downing Street news conference to mark a year since the first lockdown, Mr Johnson then joked with Tory colleagues at a meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee.
“The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed my friends,” he told MPs on a Zoom call, The Sun reported.
But as he risked inflaming tensions with the EU amid its slow jab rollout, he backtracked, adding: “Actually I regret saying it. Forget I said that.”
A Downing Street spokesman declined to comment on what had happened during the meeting, but there was no denial of the prime minister’s reported comments.
Defending the prime minister, one MP who heard the comments told Sky News the remarks were a “complete joke” and Mr. Johnson was talking about AstraZeneca “being philanthropic in non-profit production”.
“It’s pretty cheap to distort the meaning for political gain,” they added.
The controversy comes as Mr. Johnson faces a tough end-of-term interrogation on coronavirus following his claims the UK is making progress a year after his first lockdown.