by Tom Chivers
Friday, 29
January 2021
Reaction
11:23

Kate Bingham saved vaccines when Europe couldn’t

It's best to avoid criticising someone when they're right
by Tom Chivers
Kate Bingham getting a vaccine demonstration. Credit: PA

There’s a line I think about quite a lot, in a blog post I read a few years ago. It’s about Einstein. In 1919, after the First World War, a British expedition travelled to Principe, an island off the west coast of Africa, to observe an eclipse. The plan was to see whether the sun’s mass bent the light of the stars behind it as much as Einstein’s theory of relativity said it would: when the sun’s light was obscured by the moon, the stars around it would be visible.

Ahead of the expedition, a journalist asked what Einstein would do if the experimental results didn’t support his theory, to which Einstein replied: “I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct.” This sounds arrogant, says Eliezer Yudkowsky, the author of the blog post — aren’t we supposed to be humble, in science, and say that experiment is what matters?

Yudkowsky argues that it’s not, and I tend to agree with him: it is vanishingly unlikely that Einstein had exactly enough evidence to find the relativity equations, out of the endless millions of possibilities, without being pretty damn sure they were correct. But the line that stuck with me was:

“Of course, Einstein did turn out to be right. I try to avoid criticising people when they are right. If they genuinely deserve criticism, I will not need to wait long for an occasion where they are wrong.”
- Eliezer Yudkowsky, Einstein’s Arrogance

That is roughly how I feel about the UK vaccine situation, specifically as it relates to Kate Bingham, head of the vaccine taskforce, and as it relates to Brexit.

There has been plenty wrong with the UK response to Covid-19, and with its procurement of various important things. It seems to have given a lot of money from its “Moonshot” programme to a company with no track record in disease diagnostics, for a start. I don’t think the Test and Trace system, or the Test and Trace app, have been roaring successes either.

But the British vaccine procurement and delivery has been excellent. We are doing better than any of our European neighbours. For all the talk about Bingham being a crony hire (there was even talk of suing the government over it), she has overseen Britain getting hold of the Moderna, Pfizer and Oxford vaccines — the Oxford one several months ahead of the EU.

This morning, Novavax announced its own vaccine’s effectiveness — 89%. The UK has ordered 60 million doses and it will be manufactured on Teesside. My understanding is that Bingham, a biotech venture capitalist, has treated it like venture capitalism: investing in several promising candidates, expecting that some will fail but that some will succeed. She, or her task force, appears to have done a good job so far.

It’s also notable that the task force turned down the chance to join the EU’s joint purchasing system because it would have been required to end its own negotiations; as The Times reports, the EU then got stuck in internal arguments, and didn’t sign a contract with AstraZeneca for three more months. Similarly the UK was first to sign a deal with Pfizer.

There’s been some argument about whether or not this is a “Brexit benefit”. Legally, Britain would have been able to act independently within the EU; but no EU countries actually did so. At the very least, it seems strange to say that Brexit has made this situation worse.

There will be plenty to criticise about both the government Covid strategy and Brexit in the coming months. But on vaccines, they did turn out to be right: “I try to avoid criticising people when they are right. If they genuinely deserve criticism, I will not need to wait long for an occasion where they are wrong.”

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Peter Scott
Peter Scott
1 year ago

Very well said.

All credit to Ms Bingham.

Her character as leader of the vaccine task force will have been decisive in the matter of whether or not it got a grip – a sensible grip – from the start.

So five cheers for her.

The trouble is that it is so RARE for anybody leading a government or quango or task force in modern administration to get things right, that we must not be bamboozled by this one flash in the pan, this one big happy success (for which all should give ardent hearty thanks) into supposing that we now have got competent governance in this country.

Lee Jones in the Daily Telegraph three days ago published an article, “From Rolls Royce to Skoda: How the pandemic has exposed Britain’s failed ‘regulatory state'”, which showed devastatingly the omnishambles of preparation (i.e. NO preparation) for ANY pandemic which the UK’s own Exercise Cygnus had researched and revealed in 2016.

Essentially (to put it in a nutshell) oversight, procurement, organisation, provision were parcelled out into innumerable quangos and private enterprises; and so nothing was ready for this current Chinese WuFlu, just as Exercise Cygnus prophesied (in 2016) would be the case.

Mr Jones concludes ‘The experience of South Korea ““ a developing country as recently as the 1990s ““ should be deeply chastening. When Britain finally escapes this nightmare of rolling lockdowns, we must completely rethink how we organise the state. We need a democratic state that is prepared to
exercise authority, mobilise resources, and be accountable for its
decisions ““ not a failed array of quangos, management consultancies and
outsourcing firms’.

Some misers deal with their problems of conscience by once in a lifetime performing a generous deed.

This revelation of how the characteristic commitment of today’s 4th-rate Political Class to cowardice and laziness puts real governance into a rabbit-warren of administration (meaning a honeycomb of alibis and excuses) must not be put on the shelf, as the Cygnus findings were, by the same-old same-old Shower in the House of Commons being able to cite the one thing they have got right in the last 2 decades.

Trevor Chenery
Trevor Chenery
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

Couldn’t have put it better or fairer

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

Lee wasn’t actually criticising the people in the House of Commons, but the permanent state, the one you describe as having been farmed out to unaccountable quangos and bodies – such as PHE, whose failure resulted in its partial disbanding. Cummings was the number one target of this permanent establishment for a reason.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
1 year ago

The people who have done the farming out, over the years, are successive British governments (= members of the House of Commons) and other members of Parliament also delighting in the idea of setting up this quango here and outsourcing that oversight there.

I agree with you about Cummings. His departure seems to have been precipitated by his mistake in agreeing to be Boris Johnson’s chief honcho across the range of all government policy.

I had expected him to deal exclusively with the Civil Service and make its genuine reform a full-time task over a number of years.

A missed opportunity.

Vem Dalen
Vem Dalen
1 year ago

You can criticise the recruitment and selection process but I dare anyone to criticise Kate Bingham’s diligence. Under Bingham’s direction the UK placed orders for Pfizer, AZ, Novavax and Jansen. The Government added Moderna once it became clear that their vaccine worked. A number of vaccine candidates have failed already so it was never a case of shooting fish in a barrel. Massive credit to Kate Bingham and her team.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago

All fair points.
To my mind though it’s not so much the UK, US, Israel, Bahrain doing well.

It’s really, really stupid decisions from wealthier countries that are being ravaged by Covid and lockdowns.

The financial cost alone of Covid/Lockdown in the EU (to say nothing of deaths and deprivation of liberties) is huge. The UK loses £Billions for every day of lockdown, and is accrruing huge future costs in healthcare, business closures, lack of education and so on. I presume the EU is similar and on a bigger scale.

It seems like a case of penny wise, pound stupid from the EU and others.

The tragedy is not only that EU citizens will needlessly die and suffer from this. An EU committed to vaccines 3 months earlier could have seen it’s industrial might dedicated earlier, we could in effect be importing huge numbers of vaccines from them (I’m not too proud), there’s pfizer, but not enough. Or they could be exporting to poorer countries soon.

The EU acting like a tinpot dictatorship threatening exports and producers, has probably already had a massive negative impact. If you were ‘Big Pharma’ and needed to invest huge sums to ramp up production in the EU you would have to talk to your lawyers and stop acting in “best efforts” or at cost price. We’ve got vaccines fast because government and business have acted in good faith, best efforts.

Peter KE
Peter KE
1 year ago

Good article, credit where it is due. The vaccine team appears to have done a first class job and worked well with the pharmaceutical companies. Also good that they kept PHE and many others away.

Hilary Davan Wetton
Hilary Davan Wetton
1 year ago

Kate Bingham has clearly done a good job, where most poiticians clearly have not. But the real scandal is that successive Governments – through at least the last 15 years – have failed to put proper contingency planning in place for a Pandemic predicted by by many medical scientists. Worse, they even ran down our capacity to manufacture our own Vaccines. It is exectly the same issue as inviting the Chinese to build our nuclear Power stations. There are some crucial tasks too dangerous to outsource to a Foreign State – or company – whatever the short-term cost saving. Has this obvious lesson been learned? I fear not.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago

The Chinese have a huge advantage over us in that they can plan for the long term. 4-5 year governments can’t. They are mostly trying to survive against the hostile media who are out of control. Just think how much could be done were it not for the continual sabotage by the media.

Helen Barbara Doyle
Helen Barbara Doyle
1 year ago

The whole thing is a great advert for keeping Civil Servants out of any business arrangements.

Tim Diggle
Tim Diggle
1 year ago

So Kate Bingham, a renowned expert in the field of Bio-Venture Capitalism, has shown exactly why she was recruited having applied private sector VC standards to a public sector project. She is now rightly lauded for her outstanding performance. I understand that this was an unpaid and temporary role (May to December, 2020) to oversee the vaccine procurement process which has now ended.

Just remind me again;
(i) Why she was criticized for being the wife of Jesse Norman (a Conservative MP)
(ii) Why she was criticized for spending £670k on Media PR
(iii) Why she was not offered any sum of her own choosing to remain in post

Or perhaps (i) and (ii) mean that she would not have accepted (iii). Then again, her outstanding performance may have embarrassed her public sector paymasters just a little too much …

David Mearns
David Mearns
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Diggle

They key issue here is that a person with genuine expertise and successful experience for the required task was chosen for the job. Which begs the question why so many key COVID management activities were handed out to people and organisations without such qualifications.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago
Reply to  David Mearns

If you are talking about the PPE, it was a mad scramble to get it, for everyone in the world. Appointments couldn’t be made properly because it would have taken too long.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago

Totally shocking! Fancy putting someone with exactly the right sort of experience in charge of something really important, not hobbling her with bureaucracy or putting unrealistic budgetary constraints on her, but just telling her to get it done. That is not the way governments are supposed to not work.

If we had put the right sort of people in charge of the procurements that went less well and given them the same freedom, then I am convinced those would have gone much better too.

As far as avoiding an EU scheme is concerned, that is a bit of a no brainer that you would expect anyone who was not blinded by politics to work out.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Whoever was in charge of procurement would have come up against the reality that the Chinese had bought up all the PPE in the world. The Americans were short; the Germans were short. German doctors and dentists had to procure their own throughout the first wave. Our government and armed forces didn’t do too badly. But that wasn’t going to be admitted by the media.

tim97
tim97
1 year ago

OK, I’ll go first… sorry Kate Bingham ““ I was critical of your appointment but admit my judgment was clouded by potential cronyism. In my defence there’s still questions to answer of contracts awarded for PPE etc under highly dodgy circumstances.

However, credit where it’s due, the vaccine procurement and rollout has been impressive so far. Let’s get some additional nimble minds on some of the other challenges.

Perhaps the government can hire someone who has more than a D grade GCSE in communications and how to treat the nation with respect and as adults!

Keith Talent
Keith Talent
1 year ago

Why did the EU take so long? Would it naturally take longer to procure for 27 countries of 400 million odd people than for 1 of 66 million? I can’t think of a reason why it should.

On the other hand, I can see why, given it was known the vaccine wasn’t going to be ready for a while, one procurer might want to take the time to negotiate an agreement, and having signed the contract, wouldn’t expect to see it reneged on while another party with the same agreement got their full supply just because they signed up earlier.

My family business has previously been hit with production issues that have limited our output, in which case we reduce the amount delivered to each customer proportionately, rather than supplying one in full and binning the other off completely based on the order in which they signed the contract. One would certainly expect this approach for a vaccine that really should be focused to going to whoever’s need is greatest wherever they are…

What I haven’t heard about the ‘Brexit benefit’ argument is whether its logic applies universally – ie should every country have gone it alone and would 28 countries battling each other for scarce supplies have resulted in more people getting vaccinated earlier, with priority going to those across Europe and indeed the world who need it most? If so, it’s fair to call it a Brexit benefit. If not, it’s just the UK divesting itself of any kind of global responsibility for this problem and putting itself first (which I acknowledge would not be an unpopular strategy)

Mark H
Mark H
1 year ago
Reply to  Keith Talent

The bigger the organization, the longer things take. I moved from a company with 10 staff to one with over 10000 and could not believe how long it took to get any kind of strategic decision settled.

Actually this situation is very reminiscent of Microsoft’s actions when Apple brought out the iPhone – “only the fanbois will buy it”, then “what you really want is a phone that works like a PC”, then “no actually we’re going to make your PC work like a phone”, oh and “let’s buy a company that knows something about phones”. Each one a bad idea but they weren’t any threat to Apple’s business because they were late and took a long time to execute.

But their cumulate effect was zero presence in the mobile phone business AND no longer do people expect to re-purchase Windows every 3 years.

Helen Barbara Doyle
Helen Barbara Doyle
1 year ago
Reply to  Keith Talent

Yes, it does take longer to do a deal for 27 countries because as has happened whenever the EU has tried to do a trade deal in the past each one wanted to gain an advantage, the French wanted a French vaccine bought for instance.

And absolutely a company should honour contracts signed months earlier first. The UK took a punt and ordered supplies long before stage 2/3 trials were complete, why should the EU barge in, having waited to see which ones were most likely to succeed AND refused to pay full price.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago

That and some countries go around the EU. Germany, for example trying to buy vaccine just for Germany outside EU arrangements. It seems everyone is a nationalist in a pandemic. The article is incorrect when it says no EU country acted independently. Germany will always act in its own interests first.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago

Just as Germany is the only country to rule through its courts that its law supersedes EU law!

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago

Especially as the EU still hasn’t paid or approved.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago
Reply to  Keith Talent

If your first client paired you with the vaccine creator in the first place, spent huge sums upfront to help you set up, helped you every inch of the way and you signed an agreement to provide them first….

Then yes you have a legal and moral obligation to deliver to them first.

In moral helping all humanity terms we should help the worst afflicted countries first, one of those is sadly the UK. Then maybe Brazil, South Africa?

The AZ vaccine is not for profit, its a 10th the price of the others. If it works well it could save 100,000s lives, even millions. The inventors, producers and backers (UK gov) should be congratulated – instead for political reasons attacked.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago

What a backhanded compliment!

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
1 year ago

Yes, Bingham did the job well , but if the government is still not going to release those vaccinated, then what’s the point? Do they have faith in the vaccines or not?