Bates, a lobbyist who chairs the UK Bio Industry Association, told CNN, “She wanted my contacts. I knew I knew everyone in the industry.” Kate Bingham told me, “We never made a vaccine against the human coronavirus. This is a long shot. ”
Forced to feel patriotic duty in a time of crisis, Bates agreed to put off his day job. The position was unpaid.
By then, the British government had one of the highest national death tolls in the world, having been slow to enforce lockdown restrictions, and showing a reluctance to enforce the rules and follow ineffective attempts to track and trace the spread of the virus. Its borders were also still wide open, and the government was throwing money at a rotating group of private sector advisers to secure essential personal protective equipment (PPE) – an effort that seemed more successful in sparking controversy than securing supplies.
But the government’s farsightedness in supporting coronavirus vaccines has turned into one of the most surprising success stories of the pandemic.
Nadim Al-Zahawi, the UK’s minister for spreading the Covid-19 vaccine, confirmed that the goal had been achieved early in the day in a post on Twitter on Sunday. “We will not rest until we provide the vaccine for the entire first stage,” Al-Zahawi wrote, referring to the priority groups identified by the government.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson celebrated this moment, calling it a “milestone” and an “exceptional achievement”.
He wrote on Twitter: “In England I can now tell you that we have now given the punches to everyone in the four first priority groups, who are the people most at risk of seriously ill from the Coronavirus, and we are achieving the first goal we set for ourselves.”
The British government is also planning to give a first dose to the remaining at-risk groups and adults over the age of 50 by the end of April.
Throughout the country, football fields, horse-racing tracks, cathedrals, and mosques are used as sites for mass pollination. And through the National Health Service (NHS), the government can reach nearly everyone in the country to schedule a vaccination.
In Basingstoke, southern England, a functioning fire station is being used for pollination. To accommodate the program, the engines were moved overseas, emergency deployment routes were repaired and a small army of soldiers, firefighters, volunteers and nurses moved in.
“It feels like a wartime effort,” says Mark Maffy, the NHS engineer who led the conversion of the fire station and three other vaccination sites in the area.
Big bets on “long” vaccines
Wary of repeated mistakes in purchasing personal protective equipment and a reluctance to rely solely on public officials who lack experience in purchasing the vaccine, Britain’s chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, has pushed Downing Street to bring in outside experts to form a vaccine task force.
On paper, the unusual mix of current and former public servants and insiders in the industry sounds like a recipe for a conflict of interest, but they were accountable to ministers and government auditors, explains Betts, who left the commission last month.
The British Swedish pharmaceutical company was chosen due to its iron-clad commitment to prioritizing the UK market, which, according to both parties, ensured that all UK-made dosages were to be submitted to the British government, and only doses were exported once the country had supplied. In return, the UK government agreed to invest heavily in manufacturing the vaccine.
“I would not have accepted a contract allowing the Oxford vaccine to be delivered to others around the world before us,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told UK broadcaster LBC earlier this month.
From more than 100 vaccines in development worldwide at that time, the task force selected about 20 vaccines based on how quickly they were being tried and available. Ultimately, they chose seven based on the manufacturers’ ability to increase production in the UK. These seven include the three that have been approved so far by Pfizer / BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford / AstraZeneca. Two more Novavax and Johnson & Johnson also showed promising results in Phase 3 trials published last month.
Bates says the bureaucratic hoops were minimal. “I think having a small group makes decisions easier and faster,” he said, adding that “having a hotline with the prime minister also made sure that the chains of command were very short at the crucial moments when making decisions.”
“I didn’t feel it was the right thing to do, so the UK didn’t do it,” Bates said, estimating that the decision “probably gave us prior work for at least three months, which is invaluable.
The UK’s decision not to join the European procurement strategy was controversial. Last March, Martin Mackie, a European professor of health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, predicted in The Guardian that Britain would pay more and get fewer vaccines by treatment alone.
“The timing of the pandemic … could provide an opportunity to reflect on whether isolationist ideology is a really good idea,” wrote Mackie.
His view has since changed. Mackie told CNN: “I fully acknowledge that I was wrong about this.” “I give full credit to Kate Bingham … She did a very good job.”
Mackie believes the UK’s success is also due to the well-regulated and centralized NHS, giving the country an advantage many other countries lack. The Basingstoke fire station is capable of injecting more than 1,000 vaccine doses per day. Nationwide, daily injections at one point surpassed 600,000. NHS staff, emergency services, and regular volunteers all began to see their efforts pay off.
Firefighters now practice shooting at Basingstoke under the direction of Steve Apter, Hampshire County’s Deputy Chief Fire Officer. Last summer, Amber’s mother was hospitalized with symptoms of Covid-19 and later died of pneumonia. She eventually tested negative, but her symptoms led to her isolation for several days, and she was unable to keep her family by her bed.
“The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming,” he recalls. He’s proud of how the fire service has contributed to the vaccination effort and can’t help but feel national pride, too.
“I’ve never experienced such an open sense of common purpose than we now see.”
Matt Brillie of CNN, Darren Ball and Mark Barron contributed to this report.