UK ‘going backwards’ in pandemic preparedness – expert

The UK is “going backwards” when it come to pandemic preparedness, the former chair of the Vaccines Taskforce has suggested.

Dame Kate Bingham said the nation is “not in a much better place to deal with a new pandemic” while European countries are increasing their capabilities to face new viruses or new variants of Covid-19.

She suggested that UK capabilities set up to tackle the Covid-19 crisis were being “dismantled” and called for expert oversight to ensure the nation was prepared for future threats.

“What’s going wrong is there has been no expert or leader that’s put in place to coordinate the activities,” she told a joint hearing of the Science and Technology Committee and Health Committee of MPs.

“People that understand manufacturing scale up, clinical development, regulation… all of that has gone.

“We’ve got the capability in the country, but it can’t be done in a vacuum, we need to have an expert leader to bring that together to try and get us back into a better position.”

She added: “When I left (the Vaccine taskforce) in December 2020 we gave some very specific recommendations as to what we thought should happen – ‘an independent industrial experience chairman and board established to bring together the various strands of vaccine activities that will define UK as a global leader in vaccine development and manufacturing’. That’s not happened.

“To begin with I thought it was lack of experience of officials – because we don’t have a lot of people within Whitehall that understand vaccines and relationships with industry, all of that.

“But actually, I’m beginning to think that this is deliberate Government policy, just not to invest and not to support the sector.

“Because I cannot explain why we haven’t appointed somebody that can actually bring this all together because we’ve got the capabilities and yet systematically, things have been dismantled that we’ve put in place.”

She cited the sale of the Vaccines and Manufacturing in an Innovation Centre to US company Catalent, which has since announced that it will not be putting expenditure in until 2024.

Kate Bingham
Kate Bingham, chair of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

“It has been sold and moth-balled,” Dame Kate said.

She said that Cobra Biologics, which was “a key part of the early scale for the vaccine manufacturing”, has been acquired by American pharmaceutical company Charles River.

The company has since announced that manufacturing from the firm is being transferred to the US.

Meanwhile, Dame Kate said the decision to stop the vaccine registry was “dumb”, and even though ministers reversed the decision they have “lost a lot of goodwill”.

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

Asked about being prepared for future pandemics, Dame Kate added: “I don’t think we are in a much better place to deal with a new pandemic… I think we’re marginally better.”

She said the vaccines in use are “not good enough” and more needed to be done to develop jabs that stop transmission.

“We need to bring together the capabilities that we’ve got, working in partnership as we did effectively in 2020 to actually make sure we stay ahead of the game and not constantly looking in the rear-view mirror,” she said.

Coronavirus booster graphic
(PA Graphics)

On pandemic preparedness in Europe, she added: “(European countries) were slow to get off the blocks to begin with, but they’ve now done what needs to be done which is to recognise this is not going to be the last pandemic and we need to have a better and quicker approach to identifying potential pathogens, and maybe being able to build vaccines very rapidly against new variants or new pathogens.

“They are doing exactly what we’ve recommended for the UK, but our approach seems to have been to go backwards rather than to continue the momentum.

“I would recommend to the to the new Prime Minister and ministers to go ahead and read the recommendations we gave in December 2020.

“Those recommendations haven’t changed, I haven’t shared them with Europe, but they are certainly following a lot of them.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the negotiations to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the implications on intellectual property, she said: “Anything that puts us in contravention of the European patent convention would be catastrophic.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman was asked if the Government accepted the comment that the UK was falling behind in pandemic preparedness.

He said: “No. I think you can see just from today we are opening the medicines manufacturing innovation centre.

“That’s a £13 million site which did not exist pre-pandemic which we have rightly spotted is something we need to have better preparation for and we have acted on.

“That sits alongside the creation of the UK Health Security Agency – a body that was set up to spot future pandemics. That is backed by £2.4 billion.

“We have the wider £20 billion of research and development.

“We have the new MRNA Information and Technology Centre, the Covid vaccine unit. So we have significantly changed our approach to looking for future pandemics and to responding to them when they should arise.”

On her comment that signing up to the CPTPP would be catastrophic for the UK bio-tech sector, the spokesman said: “Obviously we would never do anything that would have such a significant impact on a sector of interest to the UK.

“I am not going to speculate on what would or would not be in a future trade deal.”