Former vaccines chief sounds warning about UK pandemic readiness

The UK is not in a significantly better place to deal with a new pandemic, the former vaccine taskforce chief has said, as a leading public health expert suggested Covid infections may be on the rise again.

Dame Kate Bingham, the managing partner at the life sciences venture capital firm SV Health Investors, headed the UK’s vaccine taskforce between May and December 2020. The taskforce played a key role in securing the country’s backing of, and access to, a wide portfolio of potential Covid jabs – a move that has been credited with putting the UK on the front foot for early deployment of vaccines during the pandemic.

However, speaking to a joint session of the Commons health and social care committee and the science and technology committee, about lessons learned during the pandemic, Bingham said many of the initiatives set up by the taskforce had been dismantled, while key recommendations it had provided had not been acted upon.

“To begin with, I thought it was lack of experience of officials since we don’t have a lot of people within Whitehall who understand vaccines, relationships with industry, all of that, but actually, I’m beginning to think this is deliberate government policy, just not to invest or not to support the sector,” she said.

Among her concerns, Bingham cited the failure to create bulk antibody-manufacturing capabilities in the UK and the proposed termination of the NHS Covid vaccine research registry through which the public could indicate their willingness to participate in clinical trials for Covid vaccines.

The decision by the National Institute for Health and Care Research to close the registry was eventually reversed after Robert Jenrick, then a health minister, stepped in.

“I am baffled as to the decisions that are being made,” she said.

Bingham also raised concerns about the length of time it is taking to agree a contract with Moderna – a US-based company that produces mRNA Covid vaccines – to create a research and development, and manufacturing, facility in the UK. At present only an agreement in principle, known as a heads of terms, has been struck.

“Goodness knows it does not take six months to go from a heads of terms to a binding contract,” she said, adding she also had doubts about the UK’s progress in pandemic preparedness. “I don’t think we are in a much better place to deal with a new pandemic. I think we’re marginally better.”

Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford and an early member of the government’s vaccine taskforce, also raised concerns.

“I have seen an absolutely dramatic reversion to what existed before the pandemic,” he said. “During the pandemic we had this amazing environment for testing and evaluating vaccines, drugs, testing and the likes. It was the best in the world. And now our clinical research environment is actually much, much worse than it’s ever been in my living memory.”

A key problem, said Bingham, was the lack of an expert leader to coordinate activities ranging from vaccine innovation and scale up to the understanding of new variants and potential pandemic viruses. “All of that has gone,” she said. “Maybe there’s somebody secret out there that that is doing that, but not as far as I can see..”

But Dr Dame Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which has taken over the vaccine taskforce’s role in vaccine supply, said the agency was continuing the latter’s work, with the creation of a vaccine development and evaluation centre among its recent moves.

“She may not be seeing everything that’s happening,” Harries said of Bingham.

Neil O’Brien, the minister for primary care and public health, also pushed back against criticisms of the time it was taking to finalise the Moderna deal, stressing it did not relate to buying a single product.

“We have, let’s be clear, agreed a lot of this – we agreed that construction of this facility will start next year, we have agreed that vaccine manufacturing in the UK will start in 2025,” he said. But, he added: “Because we are buying a very flexible tool, that is a fundamentally complicated negotiation.”

Harries said data tentatively suggested Covid was on the rise in the UK, fuelled by variants of the BQ family, but the focus was on preventing severe disease. “We are not trying to prevent total transmission. We are trying to manage the disease as we do for other respiratory infections,” she said.

Bell agreed: “I think we will need to have annual injections, particularly for the elderly where their immune systems don’t work that well anyway, in the form of boosters, and let the rest of the population muddle on with you know, the odd head cold or the odd episode of flu-like illness into the future.”

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