‘We were at a disadvantage in terms of buying power so we sought to be nimble and cooperative’: how government got ready for vaccine rollout

Kate Bingham reveals foundations for vaccine taskforce's achievements so far
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The chair of the government’s coronavirus vaccine taskforce has set out details of how it worked to prepare for the rollout of the jabs, which has now seen more than 9 million people receive their first dose of protection.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Friday, Kate Bingham, the chair of the UK vaccine taskforce, said that the reason the UK was racing ahead of the EU with its vaccine rollout “was the fact that we actually started scaling up the manufacturing for the Oxford vaccine from February”.

She said: “We signed the contract and terms of agreement with [manufacturer] AstraZeneca in May, but actually the work to scale up the manufacturing started months before that.

“And that’s early work that was done by the industry – voluntarily, not based on contracts or requirements, but a voluntary coalition of the different companies – that ultimately made the difference to why we are so far ahead.”

Bingham, whose appointment by prime minister Boris Johnson caused controversy after reports of her use of PR consultants, also revealed her plan to build the UK’s vaccine stock.

The taskforce, which sits with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has secured access to 367 million doses of seven of the most promising vaccine candidates, including three – BioNTech/Pfizer (40 million doses),  Oxford/AstraZeneca (100 million doses) and Moderna (17 million doses) – that have been approved for use. The others include:

  • GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur (60 million doses)
  • Novavax (60 million doses)
  • Janssen (30 million doses)
  • Valneva (60 million doses)

“When we set up the vaccine taskforce in May, we were clearly a small player, relative to some of the other bigger countries like the US or the European Union or Japan. So we're clearly at a disadvantage in terms of size and buying power. So the way we sought to address that was to be nimble and as cooperative and supportive as we possibly could be.”

There were two aspects to this, Bingham said. One was investing in manufacturing capacity ahead of the vaccines being approved by UK regulators, providing support and expertise from the taskforce to procure equipment or help from industry to scale up existing production.

Secondly, the taskforce focused on helping ensure clinical trials took place quickly and to high standards.

“That's why we set up the NHS registry, and we have a shade under 400,000 volunteers, who've registered into that. And I’d like to say thank you to those people, because without that registry and those people who are stepping forward to take part in trials, we would not have this data as quickly. So our ability to get the clinical trials running and completed has been absolutely phenomenal.”

Bingham said she “had a massive smile” on her face and “broke the dry January rule and had a glass of wine” when she heard the news that the coronavirus vaccine developed by Novavax was shown to be 89.3% effective in trials.

The jab is being made in the northeast of England and once approved by medical regulators is expected to be rolled out to the public in the second half of 2021.

Bingham revealed that the UK vaccine taskforce was looking at “more much scalable and distributable” ways of delivering vaccines, which included pills, patches, and nose sprays.

“We need to improve the vaccines formats because frankly, two injections delivered by health care professionals is not a good way of delivering vaccines,” she said.

Adam Payne is a reporter at CSW's sister titles PoliticsHome and The House Magazine, where a version of this story first appeared. Richard Johnstone is CSW's acting editor.

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