On December 8, 2020, the photo of 90 year old Margaret Keenan went round the world. The British former nurse had received the first Covid-19 vaccine. While citizens in the European Union still had to wait for three long weeks, the United Kingdom started the vaccine rollout in record time.
Two years later, the image of the slow Europeans and dynamic Brits has reversed. This Wednesday the EU Commission presents its first report by HERA (Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority). The EU agency’s general budget is €6bn (£5,2bn) for the period 2022-2027 with a ten-year global strategy. „HERA is a crucial of the European health Union and our watchtower for crisis preparedness and management,“ said Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, in comments for WELT.
Meanwhile, the challenges of the pandemic increasingly drop off the political and public radar in the United Kingdom. „Europe is now thinking about pandemic preparedness in a systematic, professional, effective way. Brussels put in place a comprehensive process to explore vaccines of all modalities with a budget for advanced purchase agreements, capacity reservations etc. They continue to engage constructively with vaccine companies. And the UK has gone the opposite direction,“ said Dame Kate Bingham in an interview with WELT.
Bingham is due to speak at this Wednesday’s Health and Social Care Committee session on „Coronavirus: lessons learnt“. She led the British „Vaccine Taskforce“ back in 2020 and advised on procurement of vaccines. Having managed venture capital funds in the life science sector for many years, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had tasked Bingham to identify the most promising vaccines in record time, which she did.
Now though, Bingham said, „the EU through HERA is much further ahead in their pandemic preparedness plans. Meanwhile, the UK seems to have lost its leadership approach in the vaccine R
The consequences could be dire. Only this week, US company Catalent suspended construction of a planned manufacturing and innovation centre near Oxford. The British government had invested more than €230m (£200m) in the site before selling it on to Catalent back in April. The company had committed to developing the site but now backtracked after profit warnings.
Back in October, the government recruited a new director for the Vaccine Supply
The pandemic has shown that global health challenges need swift action by governments. „The government is ultimately going to be the customer of these products, it needs to say: this is what we want. If you have no government intervention, then pharma companies and vaccine companies will just focus on where they can make the biggest margins,“ Bingham warned.
In Europe, health experts follow intensely what lessons the British government has drawn from the Covid pandemic. The UK is seen as an example how to deal with the Omicron variant as the country gave up the obligation to self-isolate early on, said Peter Liese, CDU MEP and member of the European Parliament’s Public Health Committee. With HERA, the EU aims to create a body similar to BARDA, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in the US according to Liese.
„A pandemic can hit again any time. We need to better prepare for this. Which is easier for a European Union with 27 members as they can join capacities. Alone by herself, this is a financial challenge for the United Kingdom. Therefore, the British government runs a big risk neglecting pandemic preparedness. Brexit could cost bitterly yet another time,“ Liese warned.
Bingham regrets that the UK government does not seem to see beyond the emergency of the Covid pandemic. Early on, the NHS started a registry for volunteers for clinical trials. But now „the government has abandoned the registry. They sent two emails announcing they‘re shutting down the NHS registry even though 94% of the volunteers had agreed to be contacted about other clinical studies, for example in the areas of cancer or heart diseases. Then after a fuss they reversed the decision to abandon the registry. It’s the mindset of the government that is wrong. If there’s a headline, but nothing really done.“