The leader of the UK’s successful Covid-19 vaccination program has accused health officials of dismantling a critical database, created to help Covid vaccine trials, when it could be used to other vital medical research programs.
“All this talk about the UK becoming a serious scientific superpower is madness,” said Dame Kate Bingham. Observer. “These people don’t really care. If you really want to make our clinical research strong, don’t start dismantling what’s been put in place.”
Bingham’s dramatic outburst follows a decision by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) to insist that volunteers who have already signed up to a national database of individuals willing to take part in the medical research must now go through a complex, three-stage verification process to re-apply to stay in the regime.
Bingham, who described the NIHR’s move as “ridiculous”, said the database was set up in spring 2020 so that the UK would have a pool of volunteers ready and waiting to be enrolled in trials a once researchers had developed candidate vaccines for Covid.
“We signed up 550,000 people and about 50,000 of them were subsequently used in 18 different vaccine trials for seven different companies. So it was incredibly effective.”
Crucially, when the scheme was set up, a clause was added to ask volunteers who had signed up if they would also agree to take part in medical trials that did not involve research into Covid – 94% said they would. “This created an enormously valuable resource for the nation,” said Bingham, who became a woman for her work leading Britain’s Covid vaccine task force.
The bureaucratic hurdles they had to overcome were enormous, but “now the bureaucracy has taken over again, it’s a mistake,” he added. “NIHR officials have found everyone on the database again and told them they will have to re-register in a complex process involving three separate steps and the exchange of verification emails.
“Only after that will the previous volunteers be re-registered.”
Bingham said she had gone through the re-registration process herself and found it complex and unhelpful.
“It’s just a monumental way to lose a lot of people from the database,” he said.
“They had half a million people who were willing to participate in all kinds of medical research projects. But there’s no way they’re going to get that many people to sign up again. It’s a total waste.”
Managing partner of venture capital firm SV Health Investors, Bingham was hailed for her work to ensure the UK was quickly supplied with large doses of Covid vaccines amid the pandemic. However, she has since been highly critical of the civil service culture she experienced when she was asked to lead the UK’s vaccine task force.
“The problem is that officials are focused on the process, not the outcome,” he said Observer. “There are simpler ways to keep all these volunteers in the database without making them go through this complex re-registration. It’s simple: we should be investing in research infrastructure, not dismantling it.”
In a speech last year, Bingham said there was “little relevant scientific and business expertise across government, a culture of underperformance in delivering results and a mistrustful and often dysfunctional relationship between government and bioscience industry”.
The problem is particularly worrying today, Bingham added, because the UK was still “not out of the woods” when it came to dealing with the Covid pandemic. Current vaccines do not block transmission and do not provide long-term protection, he argued.
“We need to continue to test and develop new formats and new approaches, and be prepared for the new variants that will likely appear in the coming months and years. So why lose this group of people who have already said they will help? It seems crazy “.
The NIHR said it had taken the step to create a new and better register to help people with all conditions, adding that it was important that individuals were asked to give new consent for any new voluntary services.
An NIHR spokesman said the new service “builds on learning from the Vaccine Register and has improved functionality. It will also help support research into a whole range of health conditions and treatments”.
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