Source: The Business Insider, The Times.

In the scramble for COVID-19 vaccines, the UK emerged in November as the first country to offer a shot outside of clinical trials — and one woman bears the credit.

Kate Bingham put her role as a life-sciences venture capitalist on hold last July when she was approached by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to head up the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce.

A year into the pandemic — despite limited buying power — the UK has secured deals for 407 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from several companies, according to the government.

As of February 1, 13.7% of the country’s population has had at least a first dose of the two-part Pfizer vaccine, according to The Times of London — outstripping progress in the US and European Union.

As a direct appointee of Johnson, she was given wide discretion to speed up the process and lay steep bets on vaccine candidates. Her six-month, unpaid appointment ended in December.

In that time, she also faced questions about potential conflicts of interest and her handling of government information marked as confidential.

At the outset, the VTF was given three objectives: To get the UK access to the most promising vaccines, shore up global vaccine distribution, and develop the country’s long-term vaccine strategy.

Almost nothing about that list of tasks looked promising. As COVID-19 spread across Britain, the country was embroiled in Brexit negotiations, the economy was tanking, the National Health Service was getting overwhelmed, and the government was reeling from multiple accusations of incompetence in its pandemic response.

So Bingham got to work.

  • Kate Bingham, a biotech VC in the UK, was very successful in working with pharma to supply vaccine to the UK.
  • Kate simplified the decision-making process of getting vaccines. “I just asked for everything to be streamlined,” she told The Times in December.
  • “I didn’t know much about government but when you have 58 people cc’d you are not going to be able to make decisions quickly. We had one shot at getting it right and no time.”
  • VTF (vaccine task force) rejected the chance to join the EU’s vaccine-buying bloc. According to a VTF end-of-year report, the partnership would have barred the UK from making outside negotiations.
  • Bingham’s existing VC contacts in the pharmaceutical industry helped get the UK’s negotiators at the table, despite the country’s waning influence and small budget, The Times reported.
  • Kate placed numerous high-risk bets by ordering early from several promising vaccine candidates at once. In total, the VTF bought doses from seven different candidates, across four different types of development processes. Some of those processes had never been approved.
  • Doing this early meant that the NHS could buy up the refrigerators needed for some of the vaccines’ storage, and prepare for distribution, the VTF report said. 
  • Kate created the 360,000-strong “National Citizen Registry” to get people on board with the country’s clinical trials as quickly as possible, the report said. 
  • Kate made it easy for manufacturers to sell without onerous liabilities if things went wrong 

But while the UK may have secured access to a hefty vaccine supply, many of the risks remain. According to the VTF report, the group used “creative deal structures and approaches.”

When asked to explain what that meant, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) — which oversees the VTF — told Insider the deals were commercially sensitive and would not give further detail.

According to The Times, the UK gave vaccine manufacturers enormous legal leeway should any of the vaccines go wrong.

As part of the VTF, Bingham was tasked with keeping the UK on board with the COVAX initiative — the UN-led project to ensure equitable vaccine distribution around the world.

The UK government contributed $751 million to this, and also shared expertise, according to the report.

But the World Health Organization has warned that COVAX is on the brink of failure, in part because richer countries — like the UK, Canada, and the US — have bought up huge amounts of the current vaccine supply.

The BEIS spokesperson denied that the UK’s success in ordering vaccines ran counter to COVAX’s mission.

There was a public outcry when Dido Harding, another MP’s wife, led the country’s largely failed Test and Trace system with no relevant experience. Meanwhile, companies with personal ties to government were also scooping up personal protective equipment contracts.

But as a life-sciences investor, Bingham had much more relevant knowledge and extremely useful high-level contacts in the pharmaceutical industry.

Source: The Business Insider, The Times.