• Katherine Grigg

Interview with Kate Bingham: chair of the UK vaccine taskforce

Monday 1st February 2021

I had the privilege of speaking over Microsoft Teams to the quick-witted and fiercely intelligent Kate Bingham, who has chaired the UK vaccine taskforce this past year. Many credit her with the speed and subsequent success of the UK’s vaccination programme, making decisions to buy and invest in vaccines long before other countries.

Four different vaccine types: adenoviral vectors, mRNA, adjuvanted proteins, and whole inactivated viral vaccines were rapidly researched. She has also since agreed with Astra Zeneca to develop a prophylactic neutralising antibody cocktail, a treatment that will be used in immunosuppressed patients. The vaccine taskforce now has access to 7 vaccines of these formats. We began, naturally enough, by talking about vaccines.

Do you think that these vaccines will be effective enough and do you think there are going to be problems with them as first-generation vaccines?

They will be effective enough now, and they'll be fine as first-generation vaccines. But we will need to tweak them as new strains emerge. We're doing that. And the beauty of getting infrastructure and national capability up to scratch is that with an mRNA vaccine, you just change the sequence. You then need to do very limited clinical testing. My prediction is that there will be slightly different vaccines from October next year. I'm assuming that we probably will need to do annual boosting at least initially until we know how long immunity is generated for by these different vaccines.

What do you think is the future of vaccines?

We will move away from the use of needles and instead turn to the potential use of pills, patches and nasal sprays. Moreover, healthcare professionals may not need to deliver the vaccines themselves, instead they could be self-administered. I’d hope that vaccination programmes are going to get advanced more rapidly from now.

Are you surprised at the success of the vaccination programme?

Overall yes, because if you look at May there were no vaccines for any human coronavirus. The fact that we started to vaccinate people on the 8th of December is beyond imagination.

Do you think we need more investment in drugs in the UK?

Yes, in general, most diseases are not currently curable, and so yes more investment could go into drugs that can alter the course of the disease – and ideally cure disease.

Is the UK a good place in which companies can develop new drugs?

I do see the UK is a good place for running the clinical studies. We've got a national network of clinical trial centres and highly credible research physicians. We can actually do the work to show whether or not a particular intervention is safe and effective quickly. That can then be rolled out around the world.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your work in Alzheimer's drug development?

We've got 17 companies that we've invested in developing drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. We're thinking about different areas of biology that could be driving different forms of dementia. Such as neuroinflammation - inflammatory pathways getting out of control and driving an aberrant immune response, driving different forms of neurodegeneration. We’ve been looking at genomics instability, and proteostasis – managing the clearance of old proteins. Also, we look at synaptic physiology – making sure that the synapses are sending the right signals. Those are some of the mechanistic themes. Then we look at different diseases that may be driven by these different themes. So that's how we've invested. We’ve got five drugs that are now in clinic and twenty first-in-class, so the first time anyone has ever tested that mechanism in the treatment of dementia

What do you think will be the greatest public health challenges in the future?

Obviously pandemics. But also dementia. We know very little about the different causes of dementia. How we talk about Alzheimer's – I suspect that’s the same as how we used to talk about cancer 30 years ago. It's not a single disease – there are lots of different mechanisms and aberrant responses that we have to address.

How should the NHS be ready for the next pandemic? Will there need to be more ICU beds?

I have no idea. I'm not responsible for anything on delivery. My role is to make sure you get the right vaccines. Hopefully, once the vaccines are rolled out, no one should be getting near ICU.

Turning to you more personally, why were you first interested in healthcare?

Because I liked chemistry and biology at A level. At St Paul’s Girls’ School, where I was a student, they hired male teachers to teach chemistry and physics. By explicitly bringing men into sciences, they brought girls into sciences

Well, that's a great reason to study something. What does it feel like to be a national hero?

I’m not. The people who are the heroes are the scientists that made the vaccine, the people that are manufacturing it; the people that took part in the clinical trials and ran the clinical trials; the regulators. It’s nice to be able to point to one person but it’s completely false.

It’s been a massive team collaboration across all aspects and countries around the world and so to point any individual out is the wrong way of doing it.

Finally, how do you relax?

I play on mountains. I run, I ride mountain bikes and I ride my horses in the snow. I also go bog-snorkelling.

What is bog-snorkelling?

Bog-snorkelling developed in a place in mid-Wales that is boggy and miserable because it rains a lot. Local people were trying to raise money for the school, and so they were trying to think about how to get people to come to this part of boggy Wales. In the pub one day, they thought it was a good idea to dig a trench and then see how quickly they could swim through the trench. It is basically magical underwater swimming, which became known as bog-snorkelling. The local community got Ben & Jerry's to sponsor this new bog-snorkelling. The initiative has been a massive success, the money raised going into building schools and pubs. Locals have now expanded bog-snorkelling to mountain bike bog-snorkelling. I’ve done both types of bog snorkelling.

And finally…. Do you have anything you'd like to say to the cohort at Bristol medical school or medic students in general?

I think the area that is really exciting is where medics combine research capability and understanding with healthcare delivery. MD PhDs are the future of our industry, connecting breaking raw science and genomics with the patients that you’re ultimately trying to treat. Being able to stratify the patient on the basis of mechanism is the future medicine.

My message to your cohort and all medical students is look really seriously as to whether or not you can combine a research career alongside your clinical career. That's how we're going to make medicine and the treatment of patients most successful.