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UK vaccine Tzar Kate Bingham is unpaid, but her PR bill to taxpayers casts doubts on cost control and Tory-linked procurement

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The head of Boris Johnson’s vaccine task force, Kate Bingham, who according to her LinkedIn page is Managing Partner of Boston and London-based SV Health Investors, has billed the taxpayer £670,000 for a team of PR consultants from Admiral Associates, to oversee her media strategy, it has been reported.

In May 2020 Bingham was appointed Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce reporting to the Prime Minister to lead UK efforts to find and manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine on a 6-month engagement.

Kate Bingham has the investor connections and the scientific background that any company or country for that matter would envy to network for attaining deals or fundraising when it comes to developing, trialling and mass-producing a COVID-19 vaccine on the home turf. But if her PR bills are not transparent what can taxpayers expect of her Task Force’s vaccine procurement deals?

Taxpayers’ bill so far

According to The Sunday Times and Daily Mail reports, Bingham’s taskforce has already spent £500,000 on eight full-time consultants from Admiral Associates – with the team contracted until the end of the year. The costs involved mean that each consultant is on the equivalent of a £167,000 a year salary, according to leaked documents. Tasks will include helping Bingham to draft statements and prepare for media appearances, according to reports.

Admiral’s clients have included Vocare and Be Part of Research (formerly called the UK Clinical Trials Gateway), the engine-room NHS research.

Bingham, according to news reports, is married to Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to HM Treasury (MP for Hereford and S Herefordshire). She is not from a strategy consultancy background but rather a specialist healthcare fund manager. The fund in which she has carved a long-standing career is investing in biotechnology, dementia, healthcare growth, healthcare technology and public equities.

The government has stated that Bingham stepped back from her full-time role as Managing Partner at SV Health Investors to take on this role as Chair of the Taskforce, for which she is unpaid.

Following Bingham’s temporary departure, SV made several appointments. In September, SV announced the addition of six new Venture Partners who joined the SV Biotech team. The appointments are high-level executives and CEOs of SV portfolio companies. You can read their bios here. The hires are aligned with SV’s first biotech focused fund, SV7 Impact Medicine Fund (IMF), which closed at £210.4m ($265m).

Government response

The taskforce head has been attracting column inches in the past week, for which the government has had to make a response. When The Sunday Times reported that Bingham shared a list of medicines that the NHS is currently monitoring to delegates at a US venture capital conference in the US, the newspaper said the information provided to the room of investors as “official sensitive” government documents.

In response to the Sunday Times article, the government said:

An article published this week in the Sunday Times has made a series of allegations and insinuations about Kate Bingham and her role. Inaccuracies are being addressed with The Sunday Times.

A presentation she gave to a women’s conference in the United States was the focus of the article. The fact of her appearance and the content of her presentation received approval from officials at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy in line with the process governing such engagements. Kate Bingham focused on publicly available information and said little that expert delegates at the conference could not deduce themselves.

Kate Bingham is uniquely qualified for the role of Chair, having worked in the biotech and life sciences sectors for 30 years. While not specifically a vaccines expert, she is a proven drugs discovery expert with superb deal-making skills and an excellent global reputation, recently appearing alongside Bill Gates at the Gates Grand Challenge Conference. 

A government statement regarding Kate Bingham and the Vaccine Taskforce (1 November)

Could transparency be questioned?

While the mainstream press has brought the PR bill to light to the masses, what could perhaps be questioned next by the venture capital and private fund community is the transparency in which the different actors at play within or near the task force and its head will be sharing information. This could be due to a trifecta of personal links to the UK government, pharmaceutical companies and SV portfolio companies, and investors within SV’s funds.

According to Gabriel Pogrund, The Sunday Times’ Whitehall correspondent, members of the Vaccines Task Force are entirely secret (see his Twitter post below).

The questions will now ensue. How is the dissemination of data and information being held back or transferred? Is there any chance that by association SV Health managers, portfolio companies and related investors will be privy to government or NHS information before made public?

Opposition party members are now voicing a hint of nepotism among Tory personal ties and government procurement (see Twitter post of MP Rachel Reeves below).

What has been put in place at Admiral Associates, SV, and in government to ensure transparency is genuine? Greater transparency could have eliminated this ‘PR fiasco’ in the first place.

What the taxpayer cannot afford, however, is another Admiral Associates bill linked to a crisis management PR campaign tied to the aftermath of the recent mainstream press reports.

But it still brings to light what many could deem inappropriate use of taxpayer funds. The Admiral Associates story is not a standalone example that has cropped up in the press. The Guardian reported that the UK government has awarded a new £347m Covid-19 testing contract to Randox, “the Tory-linked private healthcare company whose testing kits had to be recalled over the summer because of concerns about contamination.”

MP Rachel Reeves responds to the news on Twitter:

Where are we with a vaccine?

Bingham has the investor connections and the scientific background that any company or country for that matter would envy to network for attaining deals or fundraising when it comes to developing, trialling and mass-producing a COVID-19 vaccine on the home turf. Yet, the Task Force head is not over-optimistic in the slightest in finding a one-size-fits-all vaccine.

At the end of July, Bingham told the Financial Times it was more likely scientists would develop either a vaccine that provides a year’s immunity or one that only mitigates the symptoms of the virus.

“The assumption at the moment is that we’ll be shooting to get to a year’s immunity,” said Ms Bingham, who is coordinating efforts to develop, produce and disseminate a vaccine in the UK. “What I’ve been anxious about is that people . . . think we’ll have a silver bullet. That’s probably not going to happen.”

Kate Bingham, quoted in a 29 July Financial Times article, ‘Silver bullet’ to beat Covid-19 unlikely, warns UK vaccine chief 

According to a paper written in October by Bingham published in The Lancet, the Vaccine Taskforce has now secured access to six vaccines (from more than 240 vaccines in development) across four different formats: adenoviral vectors, mRNA, adjuvanted proteins, and whole inactivated viral vaccines, which are “promising in different ways”.

She writes: “The most advanced vaccines, such as those developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, BioNTech and Pfizer, and Janssen, are based on novel formats for which we have little experience of their use as vaccines, although the initial immunogenicity and safety data are encouraging. Vaccines based on frequently used vaccine formats, such as adjuvanted protein vaccines developed by Novavax, and by GSK and Sanofi, and inactivated whole viruses developed by Valneva, will not be available until late in 2021.”

The taskforce’s strategy has been to build a “diverse portfolio across different formats to give the UK the greatest chance of providing a safe and effective vaccine, recognising that many, and possibly all, of these vaccines could fail.”

Bingham stated: “We have focused on vaccines that are expected to elicit immune responses in the population older than 65 years: over three-quarters of deaths caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection are in this older population, so it is essential that any vaccine is able to protect this group.”

Scalability of vaccine manufacture was also a key criterion, she said, with the goal being to manufacture in the UK, if possible, to secure supply and create long-term resilience.

“We considered only vaccines that have the potential for approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and European Medicines Agency and for vaccine delivery as early as the end of 2020 or, at the latest, in the second half of 2021.”

With the pandemic ongoing across the globe, and the timeline of a tried and tested vaccine that has longevity hangs in the balance, there is a high probability that there will be a public call for more transparency in all government spending. People will want to know who is running the show on vaccine acquisition for the country and in particular if we need taxpayers to pay for their PR services when Whitehall staff are already in place and being paid for.

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