Boris Johnson has been accused of ignoring a senior official’s plan to prepare Britain for the emergence of vaccine-resistant Covid variants, the Observer can reveal.
With the government announcing on Saturday that the first UK cases of the Omicron variant had been detected, the former head of the government’s vaccine taskforce said he could see no evidence that his blueprint for tackling the most worrying variants – submitted in the spring – had been acted upon.
In an interview with the Observer, Clive Dix, a leading figure in drug development who chaired the taskforce until April, said that he believed the UK was no longer “on the front foot” in tackling the pandemic. “I wrote a very specific proposal on what we should put in place right now for the emergence of any new virus that escaped the vaccine,” he said. “That was written and handed into the [vaccine taskforce] at the end of April when I left. I haven’t seen a sign of any of those activities yet.
“I sent a note to No 10 [in May] saying I think this is still an emergency and it should be dealt with urgently – and I want it on public record that you’ve got my proposal. But I didn’t even get a response to that. I prodded the government and said, ‘What’s going on, because we need to do this’. I don’t see any of that going on.”
He added: “I think it’s time to ask the vaccine taskforce and the government, what is your plan for an escape variant? What is your plan for resilience for the future? Let’s see it because I think the country needs to know.”
His criticisms echoed those of Kate Bingham, the first chair of the vaccine taskforce, who warned in a speech last week: “Had we relied on the existing machinery of government, the outcome [of the vaccine programme] could have been very different.” Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser, has also called on the government to publish its plans for tackling vaccine-resistant Covid variants.
Under Dix’s strategy, a coordinating team would seek out new vaccines, give the company involved a “fast track” to a swift trial, access to the data and regulatory approval, in return for early access to new vaccines. He said this system worked at the start of the pandemic and should be repeated.
He warned that by simply waiting to buy vaccines once they had been developed, Britain would find itself at the back of the queue because bigger customers would be prioritised. “If we leave it to the industry to do, they’re going to go to the highest bidder, and the UK won’t be at the front of that queue any more, because it’s not a big market. Whereas if you act as a partner, you get things done. It’s not rocket science, and the infrastructure is there.”
He said that he had envisaged the French company Valneva as a key part of this process. However, he said the government’s “ridiculous” decision to scrap its existing contract with the company had damaged that approach.
While he said that the Omicron variant now detected in the UK was likely to be more resistant to current vaccines, he was hopeful that it would not necessarily lead to increased serious illness and death. “The current variant that’s coming is a beast,” he said. “It’s got a lot of mutations in it and the likelihood is that the antibodies that we’ve already generated from the vaccines will be less effective. They’re less effective against the Delta variant in terms of stopping people getting infected, but they are effective in stopping people getting seriously ill or dying.
“I think that will maintain with the South African variant. The reason they stop people getting seriously ill and dying is not the antibody response. It’s the longer-term cellular immune response. And it’s pretty obvious now that that’s what is keeping people out of hospital and keeping people from dying. So I’m pretty sure that response won’t wane.”
A government spokesperson said: “This past year we’ve witnessed unprecedented scientific innovations and breakthroughs, made possible by collaboration between medical experts, governments and industry.
“Earlier this year, we joined the 100 Days Mission, which will ensure industry is part of a robust collaboration alongside governments, international organisations and academia over the coming months and years to take action towards a common goal: protecting people from future pandemics through developing and deploying safe, targeted and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines at scale.”