by Tom Chivers
Friday, 29
January 2021

Kate Bingham saved vaccines when Europe couldn’t

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.”

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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