UK missed opportunities to prepare for future pandemics, says former vaccine czar | Vaccines and immunization
Opportunities have been missed to prepare the UK for future pandemics, the former vaccine czar has said.
Dame Kate Bingham, managing partner of venture capital firm SV Health Investors, played a crucial role in the UK’s efforts to vaccinate the population against Covid. As head of the UK Vaccine Task Force between May and December 2020, she led a team that persuaded the government to back a large portfolio of potential shots, securing millions of doses.
Speaking to the Guardian on the anniversary of the lifting of legal Covid restrictions, Bingham hailed the government’s swift decision-making while she led the task force, as well as Boris Johnson’s willingness to invest money in vaccines from the start.
But she said there had been missed opportunities since – including failing to bring science and business expertise to the government, and not pursuing the establishment of bulk antibody manufacturing capabilities in the UK.
Antibodies are proteins that are produced in the body to fight an infection. Although their production can be triggered by vaccination, this is not always the case for immunocompromised people. As a result, one way to protect people with weakened immune systems is to give them lab-made antibodies.
Among the therapies that rely on such manufacturing is Evusheld, AstraZeneca’s combination of two long-acting antibodies that helps prevent Covid infections in immunocompromised people who cannot be vaccinated. Despite being approved for use by the Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency, the UK, which has around 500,000 immunocompromised people, has yet to place an order for the therapy.
The Report on the achievements and future strategy of the Vaccine Task Force in 2020 cited the ability to manufacture antibodies in bulk as essential for future pandemic preparedness.
Bingham said that to have bulk manufacturing of antibodies, it was necessary to have bioprocessors with a capacity of up to 20,000 liters, noting that these processors could also be used for other biologics, including vaccines, and would allow the UK to export.
“We are far from that [capacity]. So all of our biological therapeutic products are all imported,” she said, adding that the reason for the situation is simple. “Just the government’s lack of appetite,” she said.
Bingham also suggested that lessons had not been learned about the need for science and business expertise in government, noting that a recent advertisement for the new head of Covid-19 vaccines unit at UK Health Security Agency failed to mention industry experience, scientific training, or experience in drug discovery, development, manufacturing, or regulation.
“It just speaks to some sort of ability to manage. So I think that tells me that the civil service is going back to plan A, which is to have it in control again,” Bingham said.
“[That is] why the vaccine task force was created in the first place, because they didn’t have those skills.
Bingham added that she would not return to her old role, if asked, in the event of a new pandemic.
“The answer is no, because they should have recruited someone internally to handle it,” she said. “They shouldn’t be scrambling for people from outside to come in and help.”
Perhaps best known for her role in securing an array of Covid vaccines for the UK, Bingham said it was a surprise that so many vaccines had proven effective.
“We absolutely expected a high failure rate,” she said. “When I started in May 2020 [the experts] said they believed there was a 15% chance that any vaccine at the clinic would be successful. And less than 10%, for any vaccine that had not yet entered the clinic.
Ultimately, the task force chose to support seven vaccines based on a range of technologies, six of which have been approved for use by the UK’s MHRA.
“The reason it was so good initially was that we started working with NHS teams in July 2020,” Bingham said. “So even though we didn’t know exactly which vaccines were going to work, or which ones would be first – or something like that – we knew that adeno[virus] and mRNA [vaccines] were probably the favorites. So we could say [the NHS] while there would be one that needed super cool freezers, and one that wouldn’t be so bad [in terms of storage demands].”
But Bingham said she was surprised that, despite being approved for use, the Novavax jab has not been made available in the UK.
Unlike other Covid vaccines, the Novavax jab is a protein subunit vaccine – an older type of technology that has been used for vaccines against many other diseases, including hepatitis B. This gave rise to the hope it would be embraced by many who are unvaccinated because of concerns about vaccines based on more modern technology.
Bingham also raised the need for new Covid vaccines: while current vaccines offer good protection against serious consequences, they offer much less protection against infection – a concern given the impact of the long Covid, among others factors.
With some data suggesting Omicron-specific vaccines offer little benefit On current vaccines, Bingham said there was a need for those tackling multiple variants, adding that it was also important to move away from needle-based vaccines due to cost. “Whether it’s patches, sprays, pills, implants, whatever it is, I think we have to go for it,” she said.
But while the UK’s vaccination program is widely seen as a success, the global situation has sparked outcry, with many countries, particularly in the global south, struggling to access shots.
According the 2020 report of the vaccine task forceone of the task force’s aims was to “provide for international distribution of vaccines so that the benefits of UK leadership and investment in this area can be widely shared”.
While Bingham said global vaccine distribution has not gone well, she defended the work of the task force.
“These are political decisions,” she said. “It was obviously after my time anyway, but all we could do was make sure that if we had any surpluses we would get them shipped.”
Bingham added that the UK had tried to help other countries by offering fill-and-finish services and sharing contacts, while UK data was allegedly used for Covid vaccine registration. in the world.
“The fact that we were obviously looking to acquire vaccines for the UK was not that we were trying to do it and stop other people from doing it,” she said.