Kate Bingham, first head of the UK Vaccine Taskforce and a reluctant celebrity of the pandemic, has ridden a rollercoaster of media coverage during the past few months.
In the autumn everyone cheered the speedy establishment of one of the world’s best Covid-19 vaccine pipelines. Then the 55-year-old endured a short spell of booing when she was depicted as the face of government “chumocracy”. Now that Britain’s vaccine rollout is going so well, the cheers have resumed. “Kate the Great, the woman who saved Britain from disaster” was the headline over one recent piece. She cringes when I mention it.
“I’m a bit sensitive about anything that makes it look like a vanity project or me preening when it’s really clearly a team exercise,” she says. “If you had the pick of anyone in the world I think this is the team you’d pick.”
Last May, during the first wave of the pandemic, Bingham was approaching her 30th year as a venture capitalist with SV Health Investors, when Boris Johnson asked her to head up the taskforce. Its main mission, which many feared would be impossible, was to secure a portfolio of safe and effective vaccines against a virus unknown to the world just four months earlier. Its success was illustrated on the day of our lunch by the announcement that more than 30m people in the UK had been vaccinated with at least one dose against Covid-19 — half the adult population and far ahead of the rest of Europe.
Many other aspects of the UK pandemic response have failed, from the poorly performing and vastly expensive “test and trace” programme to the ill-judged timing of lockdowns. But the vaccination rollout has been enough to resurrect the government’s reputation and enable it to lift restrictions this spring, at a time when many other countries are having to tighten them.
While I sit in west London, Bingham is lunching in her country home in the Wye Valley, just on the Welsh side of the England-Wales border. She led the taskforce from there: “I haven’t met some of them, so to have a team working that well — all on Zoom, all working quickly without hiccups or arguments — was really phenomenal.”
38 Primrose Hill Road
London NW3 3AD
Octopus, mint, taggiasca olives on chickpea mousse x2 £26
Roast duck leg with mashed potato x2 £26
Carciofi alla romana x2 £8
We may be miles apart but we are eating identical food, supplied by her favourite local restaurant Lume, which is 100 metres from her London home in Primrose Hill. In front of each of us is an enticing plate of octopus, mint and olives on a chickpea mousse. The day before the lunch, Giuseppe Gullo, proprietor of Lume, had delivered my meal to heat up on the day, while Bingham’s was couriered to the Welsh Marches.
Before we eat, Bingham’s husband, Jesse Norman — financial secretary to the Treasury in Johnson’s government — appears briefly to ask when we want him to bring in her second course, so that our meals remain synchronised. After agreeing on 1pm, Bingham and I turn to marvelling at the world’s unprecedented scientific and industrial achievement in developing, testing and manufacturing several different Covid-19 vaccines within a year of the discovery of the Sars-Cov-2 virus causing the disease.
“It is off the charts amazing that we’ve created more than one vaccine in nine months, with around 90 per cent effectiveness,” she says. “The vaccines are safe and they’ve been protecting millions of people . . . In terms of the global co-operative effort, I am just gobsmacked.”
But she concedes that recent disputes about vaccine supplies and possible side-effects, particularly for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, have slightly tarnished the glowing picture. (Our interview took place on Monday before the latest reports of blood clotting that some scientists have associated with the jab.)
“It is very worrying for people, especially on the continent, who are vulnerable,” she says. “You need to be sure that the vaccines are safe and that if you take the vaccine, you will get protected. Now, all the data show that in spades — and the fact that the real-world evidence replicates the clinical trial data is astonishing. Normally, clinical trial data is a bit better than real world data.
“The bickering just layers uncertainty in people’s minds, so it needs to stop,” Bingham adds. “We need to get those people who are vulnerable vaccinated.”
Although she does not attack European leaders directly for undermining the AstraZeneca jab and inadvertently encouraging vaccine hesitancy, she may have French President Emmanuel Macron in mind when she reminds me about a recent YouGov poll showing that in France 61 per cent of people considered the vaccine unsafe and just 23 per cent thought it was safe. In Britain, 77 per cent regarded it as safe.
She calls AstraZeneca “heroes” for the way the UK-Swedish company picked up an experimental vaccine invented at Oxford university and — with help from the VTF — worked out how to test, manufacture and distribute it at low cost around the world.
“They’ve signed more deals to supply in low-income countries than any other company and yet they’ve been caught up in geopolitics,” says Bingham. “I do feel sorry for AstraZeneca. But, hopefully, history will look back and treat them kindly and say, actually, they stepped up to provide a safe, effective drug that is easy to deploy for the world.”
Bingham — daughter of the late Lord Bingham, one of the greatest legal minds of 20th-century Britain — speaks with animated enthusiasm, smiling frequently. The octopus dish has lived up to her promise. We both admire the appearance, texture and flavour of the purplish pink tentacles, set off by their creamy chickpea base.
While AstraZeneca’s low cost and ease of storage make it a frontrunner to be the leading “vaccine for the world”, a jab made by Novavax, a US biotech company, “is going to be hot on its heels”, Bingham says. Indeed, she has a rather special answer to a favourite question among middle-aged Britons: “AstraZeneca or Pfizer?” She can reply: “Neither. I’m Novavax.”
She is taking part in the UK clinical trial of the Novavax vaccine, which has an unusual crossover design. Everyone receives four shots — either two of real vaccine followed by two of placebo or vice versa. “That way, after the fourth dose everybody knows they’ve been vaccinated, but they’re still blinded in the trial,” Bingham says. “I’m going back for my third dose in about 10 days.”
We turn back to the beginning of Bingham’s involvement with the VTF. As a leading venture capitalist working in life sciences, she was asked by Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, to serve on a Covid-19 vaccine advisory group during the first phase of the pandemic.
“I got a text during one of the group’s meetings from [UK health secretary] Matt Hancock asking me to call him,” she says. “He said he had just been speaking with the PM, who wanted me to step up as chair of the new Vaccine Taskforce. I started off by saying: ‘You know I’m not a vaccine expert.’”
Bingham put forward other objections to the request, particularly her duty to investors at SV Health, which had just raised a new fund. “Eventually he (Hancock) said to me: ‘Kate, we are in a national pandemic and we need you to step up.’”
She asked for a day to consider the request, consulting friends and contacts in the pharma and biotech industries. They urged her to agree and so did her husband. So she accepted, on condition that it would just be a six-month appointment.
“I couldn’t ask my investors to give more time off than that but equally I thought that I could do something meaningful in six months and then ask somebody else to take over,” she says. “I have the ability to put a team together and this was going to get the highest possible attention.
“So the PM called me on that following day, the sixth of May,” she continues. “My main thing with Boris was just to say ‘this is an uphill struggle’. There was a lot of chat about Oxford and Imperial [College] vaccines at that time. But I wanted him to understand that it was not about a UK vaccine necessarily, we needed to look globally to find vaccines wherever they came from.”
Once that was agreed, Bingham got going with her chosen “superstar” VTF steering group of nine people, mainly drawn from the private sector, working with civil servants at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. They were armed with billions of pounds to spend putting together a “blended portfolio of vaccines” working in different ways, though no one knew which approach, if any, would succeed.
As the clock strikes one, our main courses arrive. We admire the roast duck legs with smoked mashed potatoes and carciofi alla Romana — baby artichokes accompanied by green herbs and scarlet pieces of chilli pepper.
As we eat, I ask whether her team seriously considered working with the EU vaccine procurement scheme, which would have been possible last year before Brexit took effect. “The Commission was happy for us to join the European procurement but we would not have a seat at the table, we had to abandon all the work we had done to date, we could not speak either then or in the future to any potential vaccine companies that would conflict with what they might want to do, and they would tell us when we would get the vaccine,” Bingham says.
“Being a Remainer, it wasn’t as if I came in with any strong views that we had to do it our own way,” she adds. “But, actually, that was not a very difficult decision.”
We break off to pay homage to our main course. “I’m loving the smoked mash with the duck,” Bingham says. She goes on to explain how her “venture capital view of the world” informed the task force’s negotiations with potential vaccine suppliers. “Our deals were completely bespoke to address the different things that the companies needed, with milestones that they had to achieve to get each set of money,” she says.
Another piece of “VC thinking” was “don’t penny-pinch.” “When we were negotiating, no vaccine company knew what it was going to cost to make their vaccines, so it was all being done with best efforts and best data at the time. If we’d gone in and said ‘you’re charging us too much’, then they’d have replied ‘it was lovely to know you’ and walked away.
“We ended up with agreed prices per dose and an agreed schedule,” Bingham continues. “But it was all about ‘How do we get the vaccines quickly?’ rather than ‘Could we shave another 50p off each dose?’”
She is prepared for my inevitable question about whether her appointment — as the wife of a government minister, an old Etonian like Johnson — was an example of “chumocracy”, as some critics have alleged. “The question is, ‘should there have been a public appointments process for a six-month interim position?’” she asks. “I think it’s very hard to say there should be in a global pandemic.”
Bingham, who has a first class degree in biochemistry from Oxford, mentions several other temporary positions that have been filled without an open competition. “Then the next thing is: was I qualified to do the job? And I think that the results speak for themselves on that.”
She is forthright in dismissing criticism of the VTF for spending £670,000 on a private PR company rather than using government press officers. She points out that the company was recommended by the Department of Health — not because of her personal contacts — and was needed particularly to help recruit clinical trial volunteers for a new Vaccine Research Registry.
“The other aspect that’s probably worth at least touching on is the fact that it’s very difficult to get other people to go in and take this sort of job, if this [negative coverage] is what happens,” Bingham adds. “If you look at the press that I’ve had on the continent, for example, compared with the press in the UK, it’s chalk and cheese.”
Now fully absorbed again running investments for SV Health, she is keen to pass on lessons from her six months in government. One is the need to create permanent bodies to carry on the work of the VTF, which would ensure that the UK can play a prominent part in future global action against the pandemics that are inevitably still to come.
A proposed National Vaccines Agency would play a key role, building up further the country’s research and manufacturing supply chain — and supporting innovations such as making vaccines in plants and developing new oral and nasal formulations that avoid needles.
More generally, Bingham thinks government can learn from the “VC mindset”. “If you think about what we do when we co-operate and network with experts, how we find deals and build up companies, we’re always dealing with risk and uncertainty. So we have incomplete data, and you have to make expert judgments . . . And we do things very quickly.
“The first thing is to be partners, not adversaries. And that is very unlike normal government procurement, which is all about how you can get the cheapest price. VCs want to make sure we have the maximum chance of success . . . There’s a partnering mindset that is very different from what’s normal in government.
“Expecting failure is also very different. In my funds, I’m expecting a proportion of failures. In government if you have one failure, the press is all over you.”
Looking ahead to the removal of lockdown restrictions — thanks mainly to the vaccination drive that she helped to put in place — Bingham will enjoy spending less time in Wales, however idyllic her surroundings there, and more in London. In her work, she says: “I miss the Brownian motion of being in the office where it’s non-stop buzzy.”
As for her longer term future, Bingham leaves no doubt that she can contribute most to the battle against diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer, by investing in life sciences as a venture capitalist. “I’m in my forever job,” she insists, speaking more vehemently than at any other point in our lunch. “I’m never going to leave what I’m doing.”
Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first