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.
“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.”