Vaccine Queen DAME KATE BINGHAM: If we don’t want to Zoom at Christmas, we MUST get jabbed


Often, after a long and taxing day at work, I let off steam by going running in London’s parks.

But at weekends, I like to go mountain biking in the beautiful Welsh hills, an exhilarating but somewhat risky pastime on the steep, rugged slopes.

And in my long career as a biochemist and venture capitalist, I have also taken risks.

Dame Kate Bingham is 'deeply worried' about the slowing down of the vaccination programme in the UK

Dame Kate Bingham is ‘deeply worried’ about the slowing down of the vaccination programme in the UK 

I have spent three decades identifying and investing in drugs that could be the next big scientific breakthrough to help patients suffering from life-threatening or debilitating illnesses.

Each investment involves a degree of both uncertainty and optimism. In other words, I am neither risk-averse nor given to gloom or panic.

Yet I am now, I admit, deeply worried. It is a situation I could not have imagined just months ago.

In May last year, during the first lockdown, I received a life-changing call from the Prime Minister, asking me to lead the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce.

‘We need to start saving lives,’ Boris Johnson told me. ‘And I need you to help.’

He wanted me to use my experience to identify a vaccine against Covid-19 that could be produced in mass quantities and safely administered to the public, both in the UK and around the world.

More than 50,000 new infections are being recorded every day and Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, warned this week the figure could rise to 100,000

More than 50,000 new infections are being recorded every day and Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, warned this week the figure could rise to 100,000 

It was a daunting task. Scientists and laboratories worldwide were already in a race to develop and test numerous potential vaccines, but most people believed it would take years to find a safe, highly effective jab.

As we know now, thanks to an unprecedented international effort and a heroic army of 500,000 citizens who volunteered to take part in clinical trials, within six months we had achieved the unthinkable here in Britain and secured access to more than 350 million doses of vaccines.

They proved more effective than we had ever dared to hope.

Many flu vaccines are barely 50 per cent effective in protecting against disease and we didn’t know what level of efficacy to expect.

In November 2020 came the Eureka moment. We learned that one of the Covid vaccines the Taskforce had invested in — Pfizer/BioNTech — was both safe and 90 per cent effective.

Dame Bingham is disheartened to see the waning enthusiasm at vaccination centres and urges the nation to start queuing up again

Dame Bingham is disheartened to see the waning enthusiasm at vaccination centres and urges the nation to start queuing up again

So on December 8, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer jab as part of a mass vaccination programme which the UK was able to start sooner than any other country.

It was a wonderful moment. Since then, coronavirus vaccines have saved millions of lives worldwide and continue to be our greatest line of defence against the virus, with a 90 per cent success rate in preventing death. I am so incredibly proud of everyone who played a part in achieving this.

The vaccine rollout was another unprecedented success, thanks to frontline health workers and an army of volunteers, as well as administrators working around the clock.

I cheered when I saw people queueing nationwide at centres set up in cathedrals, museums, car parks and football grounds, eager to get the jabs that would protect them and their families — and give them back the freedoms sacrificed to curb Covid’s spread.

Dame Bingham says the more people who remain unvaccinated or unboosted, the greater the number of infections, which in turn can give rise to a greater number of variants and the possibility of even more transmissible strains

Dame Bingham says the more people who remain unvaccinated or unboosted, the greater the number of infections, which in turn can give rise to a greater number of variants and the possibility of even more transmissible strains 

The almost miraculous achievement of developing safe and effective vaccines so fast — vaccines that not only slashed infection rates but reduced the severity of the illness — would have been meaningless without this heroic effort to get them into people’s arms.

Sadly, those queues of cheerful people waiting to be vaccinated — and their even more cheering effect on infection rates — seem to have largely disappeared.

I am genuinely worried that the great gains we have made in the past ten months risk being eroded, with potentially serious consequences.

More than 50,000 new infections are being recorded every day and Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, warned this week the figure could rise to 100,000.

The reality is that the highly transmissible Delta variant and waning immunity is not a good combination.

And the vaccination programme — our great British success story — is at risk of stalling.

Too many people still have not received their first jab, and the booster programme offering a third jab has yet to really take off.

This seems to be more of a ‘demand’ issue than one of supply. As the PM said yesterday while urging people to come forward, there are plenty of vaccines available.

But people simply aren’t getting them in anything like the numbers needed.

The more people who remain unvaccinated or unboosted, the greater the number of infections, which in turn can give rise to a greater number of variants and the possibility of even more transmissible strains.

We know the virus tends to spread and mutate among the unvaccinated first. This is a dangerous situation.

The only way to prevent new variants is to reduce transmission, which means vaccinating more people before it is too late.

Astonishingly, of the 8.5 million people eligible for a booster in England, only 4.5 million have so far received it.

That leaves four million people who got a second jab six months or longer ago who may now have waning immunity, putting them at greater risk of catching Covid and becoming seriously ill.

At the same time, too few younger people are getting their first jab. Vaccination for 12 to 15-year-olds in the UK began on September 20 but so far only 15 per cent of those in England have had the first jab.

Many schools have not even started their vaccination programmes.

Covid is again raging through schools and colleges and on into households, some of which will include vulnerable people such as a parent with cancer or an elderly relative.

And normal family life is once again being disrupted.

Many children and teenagers who should be looking forward to half-term are having to isolate after testing positive — including my 15-year-old niece.

As a result, the family’s longed-for holiday to Spain has been cancelled.

I find it unbearable that, after the trials of the past 18 months, young people are again at risk of missing out on education and social activities. It is both sad and utterly maddening because it is avoidable.

I stepped down from the Vaccine Taskforce last December. I don’t have any behind-the-scenes knowledge of what is happening.

But I find it alarming that countries much slower to start vaccination than the UK are now steaming ahead of us with school and booster programmes.

There are many different factors in play: the closure of some vaccine centres, the decision to allow GPs to focus on the Covid backlog rather than offering jabs, and the anti-vaxxers movement that has, in particular, alarmed the parents of youngsters.

Even the NHS’s use of texts to inform people they are eligible for boosters has been cited as an issue, as more elderly recipients often don’t know how then to book online.

Whatever the reasons, we must strain every sinew to accelerate both the vaccine rollout in schools and the booster programme.

Yesterday’s news that Government advisers are considering cutting the time between the second and third jab to five months (from six) to increase the numbers eligible for a booster is welcome, but it is vital for people to come forward to get that third jab.

Older people generally have weaker immune systems and vaccine efficacy wanes more rapidly in them.

Those who received the vaccine early on, because of their age and vulnerability, will now have much reduced protection without a booster.

Data published this week confirmed that a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine reduces disease occurrence by 95 per cent when compared with those who have not received the booster.

Booster shots strengthen your immunity. You may get a headache and a sore arm, but you will protect yourself, protect others and protect the health service.

My 81-year-old mother had her booster with no ill effects and I am relieved to know that she will now be robustly protected.

Today, I want to issue a call to arms to all Mail readers: if any of you know of an elderly person who hasn’t yet got an appointment for a booster jab, then please help them book it, either via the NHS online system or by calling their surgery or local pharmacy on their behalf.

Research shows 91 per cent of people would be ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ to have a booster if offered it, so we must ensure they get it.

I think there is an important case for the Government to address possible complacency.

Some people may not realise that immunity declines over time, or believe that if they have already had Covid, they don’t need a vaccine. They are wrong.

The unvaccinated are much more likely to be reinfected. Nor are young people as invulnerable as many of them think.

More than two thirds of young adults who are currently in hospital with Covid have not been fully vaccinated.

I will stress again the importance for young people of being free to see their friends and go to school, university or work.

My daughter spent her last year at university studying — and graduating — online. Now she has a job and can at last meet and build relationships with people she works with.

If we don’t want life to move back online, with all the consequences for mental and physical health, we must ensure that vaccine uptake is as near-universal as possible.

While I believe it is pointless trying to persuade anti-vaxxers, who will not be convinced by rationality, we must reach out to those who are hesitant because they are worried about the vaccine’s side-effects.

I understand their anxiety. We had have never had a mass adult vaccination programme before in this country, so people are not used to the idea.

But the safety statistics on vaccines are outstanding. The Covid vaccines were as rigorously and thoroughly tested as every new medicine.

Nearly four billion people worldwide have been vaccinated, with very, very few serious reactions.

So we need to redouble our efforts to explain to the nervous and the hesitant that, while there is almost no risk from the vaccine, there is a very real and serious risk from the virus.

The unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to die from coronavirus than the vaccinated.

If it takes 15 minutes for a healthcare worker, or another trusted individual, to give people the reassurance they need without pressuring them, that is time well spent.

Because of the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, if we didn’t have the vaccines, we would be in a worse position now than at this time last year, with far more illness and deaths.

But hospitals are worried by the rising infection rates, which, coupled with winter illnesses such as flu, could put a heavy strain on their already stretched resources and staff.

Four in ten Covid patients in hospital have not been fully vaccinated. If intensive care beds are occupied by such patients, this may mean there is no bed for someone who has pneumonia, a stroke or a heart attack.

We have done so well on vaccination thanks to a supreme national effort. We mustn’t blow it now. The success of the vaccine programme gave us back the freedoms we once took for granted.

Like everyone else, I don’t want to give them up again, to revert to that anxious existence in which elderly people are prisoners in their own homes, normal family life is curtailed and leisure, entertainment and sporting activities are halted.

I don’t want Christmas on Zoom. And, most of all, I don’t want people becoming seriously ill and dying when it can be avoided.

I am no longer chair of the Vaccine Taskforce — I have returned to my day job. I am not party to Government or NHS plans.

But as an observer (and a lapsed scientist) who played a small part in what was an extraordinary effort to protect people, I appeal to anyone who, for whatever reason, is hesitating.

Please, as soon as you are eligible for a booster or a first-time jab, go and get it. The clock is ticking.

We need to have people queueing outside vaccine centres again — and to get those vaccines in their arms now, before it is too late. 



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