UK has missed chances to prepare for future pandemics, says ex-vaccines tsar

Posted: July 18th 2022


The marvellous Kate Bingham has some interesting home truths to share! Speaking of the pandemic, she said there had since been missed opportunities – including failing to bring scientific and commercial expertise into the government, and not pursuing the creation of bulk antibody-manufacturing capabilities in the UK.

Antibodies are proteins that are produced in the body to fight off an infection. While their production can be triggered through vaccination, this is not always the case for people who are immunosuppressed. As a result, one way to protect those with weak immune systems is to give them laboratory-made antibodies.

Among therapies that rely on such manufacturing is Evusheld, AstraZeneca’s combination of two long-acting antibodies that helps to prevent Covid infections in immunocompromised people who cannot be vaccinated. While approved for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the UK, which has about 500,000 immunocompromised people, has yet to place an order for the therapy.

The vaccine taskforce’s 2020 Achievements and Future Strategy report cited the ability to make antibodies in bulk as critical for future pandemic preparedness.

Bingham said in order to have bulk-scale manufacturing of antibodies it was necessary to have bio-processors with capacity of up to 20,000 litres, noting that such processors could also be used for other biological products, including vaccines, and would allow the UK to export.

“We’re way off that [capacity]. So all our biological therapeutics are all imported,” she said, adding the reason for the situation is simple. “Just lack of government appetite,” she said.

Bingham also suggested lessons had not been learned about the need for scientific and commercial expertise in government, noting that a recent advertisement for the new director of the Covid-19 vaccine unit within the UK Health Security Agency failed to mention industry experience, a science background or experience in drug discovery, development, manufacture or regulation.

“It just talks about sort of ability to manage. So I think that tells me that the civil service is going back to plan A, which is they control everything again,” said Bingham.

“[That is] why the vaccine taskforce was created in the first place, because they didn’t have those skills.”

Bingham added she would not return to her former role, if asked, should there be another pandemic.

“The answer is no, because they should have recruited somebody in-house to deal with it,” she said. “They shouldn’t be scrambling for people on the outside to come in and help.”

Perhaps best known for her role in securing a panoply of Covid vaccines for the UK, Bingham said it was a surprise that so many turned out to be effective.