Review by Dr Mike D Williams
Finding and producing a vaccine normally takes years with a very low success rate. It was indeed a ‘long shot’ to create a robust vaccine against Covid and then get it into the arms of the British population. We have all benefited from the remarkable achievement of Kate Bingham and her team to overcome the many obstacles.
The government did not have the pharmaceutical expertise required to deal with a pandemic. They reached out to a pharmaceutical venture capitalist, Kate Bingham, who has the best contacts book in the industry from her time investing and building companies that make breakthrough drugs. Practical, tough and determined is an understatement, as I witnessed when Kate came to the Budleigh Literary Festival recently. She was ideal to lead the Vaccine Task Force (VTF). Kate insisted that she reported directly to the Prime Minister and that she worked with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and not Health. That gave her some freedom of movement to recruit who she needed and get decisions made at speed.
The team included a former bomb disposal expert, an Indian rowing star, an Italian consultant, a submarine delivery agent, a former ambassador and a football pundit – they were striking in their diversity of background and very non civil servant in their approach. This is an inside story as it raises the curtain slightly on how government operates – how it is more concerned with process than outcome with rigid business case requirements and constant report filing. Kate’s assessment of the biggest threat to the VTF was, ‘large parts of the rest of Whitehall’.
That said a key to the success and speed (266 days from the moment that the Pfizer CEO had taken on the task of finding a vaccine to the first approved injection of it) was the willingness of the government to fund up front the risky drug development and underwrite and potential claims against the drug companies. The British population is small in world terms so negotiating with global drug companies to put Britain on their priority list needed the UK to be commercially the best possible client. Kate and the team had to make the UK the most attractive place in the world to develop and manufacture a vaccine rapidly.
The government’s approach and Kate’s knowledge of the people at the top of major companies enabled them to proceed ‘at risk’. The NHS facilitated the drug trials and then the regulator to swing behind the effort doing their work in parallel rather than in sequence allowing Britain to have the first approved vaccine in the world. The military helped with the massive logistics of getting the vaccines to the right place at the correct temperature.
Kate is a resilient person given her day job where success is far from guaranteed. Yet even for her some of the briefing to the press from parts of government seeking to undermine her team at times did leave a bitter taste. Well worth a read as a great example of where science meets politics during a pandemic.