Will rank with our greatest Britons
WHEN Kate Bingham finished her sixmonth contract as head of the UK Covid vaccine task force at the end of 2020 it would be an understatement to say that she left things in pretty good nick.
Early batches of tens of millions of doses of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine were already being rolled out and tens of millions more Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs were about to start being injected up and down the land.
In total, she had secured rocksolid contracts for 350 million doses of six leading vaccine candidates. And she had done so months ahead of other countries. Those vaccines included the Moderna jab – supplies of which are due to arrive imminently – and a single-shot vaccine being made by Johnson & Johnson which promises to be another gamechanger soon.
As if all that were not reason enough to be cheerful, on Thursday night came news that yet another of Ms Bingham’s favoured candidate vaccines had come up trumps. The Novavax inoculation, being produced on Teesside, posted stunning efficacy data – including against the new strains of Covid first identified in Kent and in South Africa.
PROVIDED the vaccine clears its final regulatory hurdles, and there is no reason to think it won’t, a further 60 million life-saving injections will come on stream for the NHS. That’s enough to give two doses to every single person in the country over the age of 50 and still have a few million to spare.
And because the whole production and delivery process is based within the UK there is no way that a sour and panicked European Commission, whose own vaccine cupboard is almost bare, can get its mitts on any of it. Asked for her reaction to the Novavax breakthrough yesterday, Ms Bingham confessed: “When I heard the news last night, I’m afraid I broke the Dry January rule and celebrated with a glass of wine.” The BBC’s Nick Robinson surely spoke for the nation when he told the modest Ms Bingham at the end of his interview with her: “Go and pour yourself another one.”
But toasting the success she has already achieved is not what Ms Bingham has in mind. Because she is already turning her attention to helping Britain find and secure contracts for innovative new anti-Covid vaccines that could be delivered as pills, patches and nasal sprays. She thinks that these new delivery methods will be key to rapidly scaling-up the vaccination process against future new variants. And, frankly, who is going to argue with her?
It is only fair when apportioning credit to Ms Bingham and her task force to also give a large share to Boris Johnson. For it was the Prime Minister who took the decision to steer clear of the EU vaccines programme and go it alone, appointing Ms Bingham to report directly to him on progress and letting her know that financial constraints would not prevent her from ordering whichever vaccines she thought worthy of investment.
Given that he gets the flak for things that have gone wrong, he should be praised for the amazing success of this great British venture. He made the right call that the supposed benefits of the EU’s extra buying power were not sufficient to outweigh the advantages of being able to sew-up contracts early and tailor them to the UK’s priorities. The Brexit slogan about the need to take back control has seldom seemed more compelling.
ONE would have hoped that opposition politicians would have had sufficient belief in Britain to support this approach from the word go. But they didn’t. Lib Dem leader Ed Davey called for Britain to join the EU scheme and accused the PM of playing “silly Brexit games”.
Meanwhile Labour leader Keir Starmer took part in a campaign of sniping against Ms Bingham, attacking her for at one point calling in private sector communications experts – she was trying to contact hardto-reach minority communities and decided she needed specialist help – and questioning whether she had wrongly disclosed commercially sensitive information, which she hadn’t.
Now she will surely go down in history as a heroic British innovator in the finest traditions of Alexander Fleming of penicillin fame or Barnes Wallis of the Dambuster bouncing bombs or the Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing.
If Ms Bingham’s brilliance leads to Britain having a substantial unused surplus of Covid vaccines by the autumn then hopefully it will be used to inoculate people in the low and middle income countries of the Commonwealth and to assist our European neighbours who are even now trying to piggy back on her success.
‘The slogan taking back control never seemed more compelling’