Britain’s former coronavirus vaccines tsar has accused the government of “dismantling” the systems she put in place to defend the country against future pandemics.
Dame Kate Bingham warned that the UK has “lost its leadership” on vaccine research and development, manufacturing and procurement, and is now trailing behind the European Union in preparedness.
She also warned that the government’s plan to join the Pacific-area CPTPP trade bloc could be “catastrophic” for UK vaccine production because it would involve signing up to a different intellectual property regime from the EU.
In her role as head of the Vaccines Taskforce, Dame Kate was credited with ensuring that Britain was the first country in the world to start inoculating its citizens against Covid-19 in December 2020.
But on Wednesday she told the House of Commons health and science committees: “What’s gone wrong is there’s been no expert or leader put in place to coordinate the activities.
“Everything from vaccine innovation scale-up to landscaping – figuring out where the new variants may come from, the new potential pandemic viruses – people that understand manufacturing, scaling up clinical development, regulation.
“All of that has gone. Maybe there’s someone secret out there that is doing that, but not as far as I can see.
She told the panel of MPs: “We need to improve the quality of the vaccines – the durability, the ability to stop transmission, lots of things need to be improved.
“That’s not going to happen in a vacuum, and that’s where we need to bring together the capabilities that we have got, working in partnership as we did effectively in 2020, to actually make sure we stay ahead of the game and are not constantly looking in the rearview mirror.”
She cited the sale of the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre in Oxford to US company Catalent, which subsequently suspended investment in the facility until 2024.
“It has been sold and moth-balled,” Dame Kate said.
Cobra Biologics, which was “a key part of the early scale for the vaccine manufacturing”, has been acquired by American pharmaceutical company Charles River, which is transferring manufacturing to the US, she said.
She criticised a “dumb” ministerial decision to shut down a registry of volunteers for clinical trials. Even though the move was later reversed, it “lost a lot of goodwill” among participants, she said.
Asked as to why the UK was falling behind, Dame Kate said: “To begin with, I thought it was a lack of experience from officials, since we don’t have a lot of people within Whitehall that understand vaccines, relationships with industry and all of that.
“But actually, I’m now beginning to think this is actually deliberate government policy, not to invest or not to support the sector. Because I cannot explain why we haven’t appointed somebody that can actually bring all of this together.
“We’ve got capability and yet, systematically, things are being dismantled that we put in place.”
Raising alarm bells over the CPTPP trade deal, Dame Kate told the hearing: “Anything that puts us in contravention of the European patent convention would be catastrophic.”
Speaking to German newspaper The worldahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Dame Kate highlighted the European Commission’s creation of a Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) with a €6bn (£5.2bn) budget for the period 2022-27 and a 10-year global strategy
“Europe is now thinking about pandemic preparedness in a systematic, professional, effective way,” said Dame Katie.
“They continue to engage constructively with vaccine companies. And the UK has gone the opposite direction.”
She accused the government of going “back to business as usual” after the mammoth effort of vaccinating the population against Covid-19.
“The EU through HERA is much further ahead in their pandemic preparedness plans,” said Dame Kate.
“Meanwhile, the UK seems to have lost its leadership approach in the vaccine R&D, manufacturing, and procurement. In 2020 we were clearly world-leading. But the UK went back to business as usual.“
Dame Kate said that a clear government lead was needed to ensure the delivery of the vaccines which will be needed in the event of future pandemics.
“The government is ultimately going to be the customer of these products,” she told The world. “It needs to say, ‘This is what we want’.
“If you have no government intervention, then pharma companies and vaccine companies will just focus on where they can make the biggest margins.”
Peter Liese, a German member of the European parliament’s public health committee, told the newspaper: “A pandemic can hit again any time. We need to better prepare for this.
“Which is easier for a European Union with 27 members, as they can join capacities. Alone by herself, this is a financial challenge for the United Kingdom.
“Therefore, the British government runs a big risk of neglecting pandemic preparedness. Brexit could cost bitterly yet another time.”
Rishi Sunak’s official spokesperson said that the prime minister did not accept Dame Kate’s characterisation of the government’s approach.
“Just today, we are opening the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, a £13m site with funding from UK Research & Innovation, which did not exist pre-pandemic and which we rightly spotted is something we need to have better preparation for and have acted on,” said the spokesperson.
“That sits alongside the creation of the UK Health Security Agency, a body set up to spot future pandemics that is backed by £2.4bn and we have the wider £20bn research and development, we have the new mRNA Innovation and Technology Centre, the Covid Vaccine Unit.
“So we have significantly changed our approach both to looking for future pandemics and to responding to them.”