Covid-19: Is this mission accomplished for head of UK Vaccines Task Force?

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

Kate Bingham was given one task: to secure supplies of a Covid-19 vaccine for the UK.

And on the day the first vaccines went into NHS patients and staff, it was only reasonable to conclude her mission was accomplished.

In an exclusive interview with ITV News before she stepped down from her role as head of the Vaccines Task Force she told me that when she started the job, it was far from clear whether it would even be possible to develop a Covid-19 vaccine in time to stop the pandemic.

And not only have those vaccines been developed, the UK appears to have chosen wisely: Pre-ordering doses of vaccines that faired the best in clinical trials and then, in the case of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine, approving them ahead of other regulators resulting in today's "V" Day for the NHS.

Bingham told me she is ever the optimist, but even she's been surprised by the pace at which the science and data analysis following it has gone.

When I interviewed her two months ago she was doubtful as to whether we'd have a vaccine by Christmas.

The big question many of us, including me, want to have an answer to, is which of the vaccine portfolio she recommended to government will each of us get?

The Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine being deployed now will go to those higher up the priority list.

But does that mean the rest of us will receive the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine which has, so far at least, provided less convincing trial data in terms of its effectiveness overall and especially in older people? 

Bingham seems to think it's simply too early to tell. More data is expected from the Oxford group.

What's more, how the vaccines perform in the general population could end up being the best guide as to which is most effective.

Already for example, the Oxford vaccine seems to provide stronger cell-based immunity -- an indication it may offer immunity for longer. It's also easier to deploy at scale. 

Also, on this historic day for Covid vaccination in the UK, it's easy to forget that putting the disease behind us, involves ensuring global access to vaccines.

Kate Bingham says she has pushed government from the beginning to be a part of the COVAX initiative to fund access to Covid vaccines in poorer countries.

But she said a decision as to whether to donate surplus vaccine she has secured for the UK was one for ministers, not her.

But she seemed hopeful that the low-cost, fridge-friendly AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine looked likely to be an important tool in a global vaccination effort.She steps down from her role as head of the Vaccine Taskforce at the end of this week.

She's faced criticism for being part of the "chumocracy" applied to other senior players in the government's Covid response (her husband is treasury minister Jesse Norman).

She palmed-off that suggestion pointing out that she already sat on several government advisory panels around vaccines and pharmaceuticals before the pandemic.

And it's fair to say that unlike other areas of the government's pandemic response the drive for a vaccine can hardly be criticised so far.

What she's most proud of she tells me, is the legacy the work of the Vaccine Taskforce has left for the UK.

They've secured the creation of new vaccine manufacturing facilities and innovation hubs, the capacity for "human challenge" studies that will help refine new vaccines, or combinations of existing ones once the majority of the population is already vaccinated, as well as creating a 360,000 strong citizen registry of clinical trial volunteers.

It's the kind of capacity that was found sorely lacking in the UK when we went into this pandemic - and one we're going to need when the next one comes around.