UK science superpower claim is ‘bollocks’, says ex-vaccines chief

Dame Kate Bingham aghast at civil service database changes that ‘will deter’ volunteers from signing up

The leader of Britain’s successful Covid vaccination programme has accused health officials of dismantling a critically important database, set up to aid Covid vaccine trials, when it could be used for other vital medical research programmes.

“All this talk about the UK becoming a serious science superpower is bollocks,” Dame Kate Bingham told the Observer. “These people don’t actually care. If you really want to make our clinical research strong, you don’t start dismantling what’s been put in place.”

The dramatic outburst by Bingham follows a decision by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) to insist that volunteers who have already signed up to a national database of individuals willing to take part in medical research must now go through a complex, three-stage verification process to reapply to stay in the scheme.

Bingham, who described the NIHR’s move as “ridiculous”, said the database was set up in spring 2020 so that the UK had a pool of volunteers who were ready and waiting to be enrolled in trials once candidate Covid vaccines had been developed by researchers.

Kate Bingham on TV with virus
Kate Bingham called the NIHR’s changes ‘ridiculous’. Photograph: ITV/Rex

“We got 550,000 people signed up, and about 50,000 of them were later used in 18 different vaccine trials for seven different companies. So it was incredibly effective.”

Crucially, when the scheme was established, a clause was added to ask volunteers who had enrolled whether they would also agree to take part in medical trials that did not involve Covid research: 94% said they would. “That created an enormously valuable resource for the nation,” said Bingham, who was made a dame for her work in leading Britain’s Covid vaccine task force.

The bureaucratic hurdles they’d had to overcome were huge, but “now bureaucracy has taken over again – it’s a bugger,” she added. “NIHR officials have come back to everybody on the database, and they have told them that they will have to re-register in a complex process which involves three separate steps and the exchange of verification emails.

“Only after that will previous volunteers be registered again.”

Bingham said that she had gone through the re-registration process herself and found it complex and unhelpful.

“It’s just a monumental way of losing a lot of people from the database,” she said.

“They had half a million individuals who were willing to take part in all kinds of medical research projects. But there’s no way they are going to get that number of people signing up again. It is a complete waste.”

A managing partner at venture capital firm SV Health Investors, Bingham was hailed for her work in making sure that the UK was speedily supplied with ample doses of Covid vaccines in the middle of the pandemic. However, she has since been severely critical of the civil service culture she experienced when she was asked to lead the UK vaccine task force.

“The problem is that civil servants are focused on process not outcome,” she told the Observer. “There are simpler ways of keeping all those volunteers on the database without making them go through this complex re-registration. It is straightforward: we should be investing in research infrastructure, not taking it apart.”

In a speech last year, Bingham said there was “little relevant scientific and business experience across government, a culture of underperformance in delivering outcomes and a distrustful and often dysfunctional relationship between government and the bioscience industry”.

The problem was of particular concern today, Bingham added, because the UK was still “not out of the woods” when it came to dealing with the Covid pandemic. Current vaccines do not block transmission and they do not provide protection for very long, she has argued.

“We need to continue testing and developing new formats and new approaches, and to be prepared for the new variants that are likely to appear over the coming months and years. So why lose this pool of people who have already said they’ll help. It just seems nuts.”

The NIHR stated that it had made the move in order to create a new and better registry to help people with all conditions, and added that it was important that individuals be asked to give fresh consent for any new volunteer service.

A spokesperson for the NIHR said the new service “builds on learning from the Vaccine Registry and has improved functionality. It will also help support research into a whole variety of health conditions and treatments.”


Robin McKie

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Public health measures are key to curbing Covid in UK, say scientists
On the second anniversary of the first lockdown, experts including Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar, outline what needs to be done to cope with pandemics

James Tapper and Michael Savage

20, Mar, 2022 @8:30 AM

Article image
UK scientists warn of urgent need for action on vaccines to head off autumn Covid wave
Expert fear that new variants will emerge and stress the need to prepare the best drugs to combat it

Robin McKie, Science Editor

02, Jul, 2022 @7:21 PM

Article image
What's the difference between all the Covid vaccines?
First there was Pfizer, then AstraZeneca, now Moderna and Novavax. How do they differ? And which might you get?

James Tapper

31, Jan, 2021 @9:45 AM

Article image
Scientists say clinical trials for ‘variant-proof’ vaccines could start very soon
From immunity to blocking transmission of the virus, labs across the UK are hunting for second-generation jabs

Robin McKie

21, Feb, 2021 @10:45 AM

Article image
New Covid variants ‘would set us back a year’, experts warn UK government
Vaccine-beating variant is ‘realistic possibility’, say scientists, amid calls for contingency plans to be revealed

Michael Savage

14, Aug, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Political leaders are raising ‘false hopes’ about coronavirus vaccines
Drugs now under development are unlikely to end the pandemic, the Wellcome Trust’s Jeremy Farrar warns

James Tapper

06, Sep, 2020 @8:01 AM

Article image
Two new vaccines on the way – with more to follow this year
Half of UK adults have had a first jab, and future supplies of millions of doses look assured

Robin McKie

04, Apr, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Will Omicron kill Christmas? How science stacks up in boosters v Covid variant battle
Analysis: UK faces grim winter if vaccines offer poor overall protection, but if the virus has weak powers to evade immunity, hospital cases can be contained

Robin McKie Science editor

12, Dec, 2021 @7:15 AM

Article image
Halfway there … the key numbers that tell the story of the UK’s vaccine drive
The government has hit both its self-imposed targets so far. How will it go the rest of the way?

James Tapper

25, Apr, 2021 @8:45 AM

Article image
The vaccines are safe. We would urge all minority groups to get one
Two politicians from Asian immigrant families seek to reassure every community of the importance of the vaccination rollout

Sadiq Khan and Nadhim Zahawi

31, Jan, 2021 @8:15 AM