The Race for a Vaccine

This week, I had my Covid-19 booster jab, which came with some nasty side effects. I was feeling very sorry for myself – on the one hand, unable to sleep because my arm hurt; on the other, unable to do much else because of high fever and a splitting headache. So, I decided to revisit Intelligence Squared’s podcast episode with Kate Bingham, who Chaired the UK Vaccine Taskforce.

Bingham was brought in to help with the vaccine effort, in April 2020, due to her expertise on innovation. She approached the challenge as a venture capitalist, knowing that there would be a high failure rate. In this interview, Bingham attributes the success of the UK Vaccine Taskforce to the following elements:

  • Quick decision-making – e.g., getting data out, from clinical trials, very quickly; cutting “looser” vaccines early on, and redirecting effort to the viable ones.
  • Cash (£900m!) upfront, to allow testing and manufacture of the vaccine, at large scale and speed.
  • Willingness to take risks – e.g., commit to scale up and manufacture vaccines, even before it was known whether they were safe and effective
  • Collaboration between university and industry, since the early days – namely, to provide the large-scale testing and manufacturing capacity that is not available in most universities
  • Ability to pull together clinical trials and deliver really high-quality data, at very large scale (largely, because of the National Health System).
  • Decision to delay the second dose of the vaccine, in order to give first dose to as many people as possible.
  • Repurposing infrastructure (e.g., veterinary factory) and equipment (e.g., vials), rather than build from new.
  • Allowed to build own team, with the right expertise.

The podcast episode provides a fascinating account of the business side of the race to develop vaccines (at one point, there were about 190 vaccine candidates!) for the Covid-19 pandemic. And is very entertaining, too. If you need a soundtrack to your presents’ wrapping session, or for your commute, give it a listen:

I also found this presentation by Kate Bingham, which gives additional insights into the effort.

I think that, at a time where Covid-19 is, once again, constraining our ability to meet with friends and family, it is good to recognise how far we have come. Enjoy the podcast (and get your vaccine!).

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