Opinionista Tim Cohen 5 April 2021

Twist of fate: Big play by big shot Kate Bingham pays off for UK in Battle Vaccine

Who is the most interesting person in the Covid-19 vaccine world? There are a lot of great candidates, including the Turkish-origin German husband-and-wife team behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci. Another is Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, a son of Greek-Jewish Holocaust survivors. But my vote goes to Kate Bingham, the head of the British Vaccine Taskforce.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

If ever there was a more unlikely appointment that would result in triumph, it would be Bingham. She is the wife of an MP who is a staunch supporter of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, so her appointment could arguably (and was arguably!) a short step away from nepotism.

Bingham is just about as toff as they come in the UK: she schooled at St Paul’s, went to Oxford, natch, then she got a Harvard business degree. She does have a biochemistry degree from Oxford but, when she was appointed, she was criticised for not being an “actual expert” in vaccines.

Write-off

Worst of all, she was and remains a business executive, sitting on the board of 10 biotech companies. How she would fit into the heavily state-orientated world of British healthcare was really anybody’s guess. The British press, never slow in publishing spiteful news, wrote her off right from the get-go.

Fast-forward a year and a bit, the results of what she has done are just extraordinary. The UK has now given just over 50% of the population one jab, compared with Germany, which has managed only 10% despite a German company being responsible for designing the most successful vaccine produced so far. How on earth did that happen?

The consequences go beyond Covid-19 and play into the post-Brexit spat between Europe and the UK. Pro-Brexit Brits have argued that the EU is a cumbersome, anti-business titanosaur. And, at precisely the wrong moment, the EU has confirmed every stereotype pinned to it by the horde.

The EU could have been graceful in defeat but has chosen to make it infinitely worse by blaming everyone other than itself. It’s gone so far as to ban, in some circumstances, the export of vaccine materials from the EU. It’s a twist of fate no one could have anticipated.

Sadly, some of the reasons for the UK’s success in Battle Vaccine do back up the arguments of the horde, but some do not. For example, the EU was slower for pure bureaucratic reasons than the UK in getting to grips with the vaccine generation process.

Blind luck

Some of the reasons have to do with backing national champions. For example, the French put a lot of faith in their own pharmaceutical champion Sanofi, which has yet to create a successful vaccine. And some of the reasons just have to do with blind luck. How different things would have looked now if all the vaccines had failed.

But part of the reason they didn’t has to do with Bingham. As someone familiar with the financing of venture capital-based biotech companies, Bingham knew what vaccine producers needed: lots of money – and quickly. It’s difficult to imagine a state bureaucrat handing over billions on the chance that a vaccine could be produced. We don’t know how much the companies got, but we do know, for example, that AstraZeneca got $1-billion from the US, so presumably, the British/Swedish company got cash from the UK too.

In exchange for these upfront bundles of cash and more or less blank cheque contracts, governments wanted the product, so the contracts specified the doses due. And the UK ordered 100-million from just AstraZeneca, enough for the entire population.

But Bingham didn’t just bet on AstraZeneca; in total the UK contracted with eight different companies, buying enough vaccines to obtain 457 million doses, enough for every British person to get around four vaccines each.

There has been lots of criticism of this approach, not least from President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has implied this is another case of the first world depriving the developing world of access to vaccines. But this is the way venture capitalists work: you move fast, you bet big, and you make lots of bets on a hope and a prayer. Most will fail, but the few that succeed will make up for the rest.

Speaking in September last year, Bingham said there was a 50% chance that most high-risk Britons would be vaccinated by Easter. Well, she massively underestimated the success of the battle plan she put in place. By Easter, almost every vulnerable person will be vaccinated in the UK, while the rest of the world looks on agog. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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