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Covid not deadly enough to fast-track vaccines, Chris Whitty advised ministers

- THE TELEGRAPH - The Lockdown Files Team - Mar 7, 2023 -


Chief Medical Officer gave opinion in February 2020 after Dominic Cummings mentioned Israel was planning to inoculate population

Chris Whitty told ministers a disease with a low mortality rate would need a 'very safe' vaccine

The Chief Medical Officer said a Covid vaccine could not be fast-tracked because the virus had a “low mortality rate” in the early days of the pandemic, messages reveal.

Prof Sir Chris Whitty told Matt Hancock and others that diseases with a mortality rate in the range of one per cent would need a “very safe” vaccine and that the necessary clinical trials would be a “rate limiting step”.

He was responding to a WhatsApp message from Dominic Cummings, the then chief adviser to Boris Johnson, in February 2020 about a report saying Israeli scientists were weeks away from developing a vaccine. How quickly vaccine trials could be completed was one of the most important arguments happening in Government during the first months of the pandemic. Mr Cummings would later claim the Government could “definitely” have started vaccinating the population in September 2020 – three months before the first jabs were given – if it had adopted a bolder approach to vaccine trials.

Booster campaign ongoing

To date, 144 million Covid jabs have been administered in England, and a spring booster jab is to be offered to people aged 75 and over, those in care homes and vulnerable people following advice from the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation.

Vaccines will be offered to eligible people around six months after their previous dose, with the booster campaign in England running from April 17 to June 30. Dr Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at the UK Health Security Agency, said Covid was “still circulating widely” and there had been a recent increase in older people being hospitalised. WhatsApp messages seen by The Telegraph include messages sent within a group of ministers, experts and officials in the early weeks of the pandemic. On Feb 29, 2020 Mr Cummings prompted a conversation with Sir Chris and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Officer, by posting a copy of a newspaper article about Israeli scientists being weeks away from a vaccine:


The highest mortality rate for Covid in England was recorded in April 2020, when 626 people per 100,000 were dying of Covid – 0.6 per cent. After subsiding over the summer of that year, it spiked again at 0.55 per cent in January 2021 before declining steadily to 0.04 per cent in January this year. In May 2021 Mr Cummings told a Covid super-committee of MPs he believed it was “unarguable” that the vaccine trials process should have happened more quickly. He told the MPs: “Normally, for any kind of vaccine, obviously you have a whole testing process, which takes quite a lot of time to go through, because if you have a disease that is killing, say, one per cent to two per cent of the population, then you have to make sure that you don’t have a vaccine that kills more than that. “However, for something like this, from the point of view of how human civilisation overall could have done better, I think it is unarguable what should have happened.” He claimed it had taken “literally hours” for a vaccine to be invented in January 2020 and that the Government should have recruited 5,000-10,000 people to take part in immediate “human challenge” trials, in which volunteers are given the vaccine and then deliberately infected with Covid to see how effective the inoculation is. He suggested that “everyone takes their chances” if they take part in the trial and “if you die your family will get one million quid or whatever”. He added: “That obviously would have been the best thing to do. If we had done that, we could have hugely cut the time for doing this. We could definitely have got vaccines into people’s arms by September.” Between the start of September 2020 and Dec 8, 2020, when the first Covid vaccination in the UK was given, more than 23,000 people died with coronavirus mentioned on their death certificate.

Human challenge trials not used

The UK, in common with other countries, did not carry out human challenge trials before the vaccine was rolled out, partly because there was no known cure for Covid, meaning that if the vaccine did not work there was no guarantee that volunteers’ lives could be saved by other means. The Government announced funding for human challenge trials in October 2020, but they did not begin until January 2021, after the vaccine rollout had started.

Instead, data gathered from volunteers who had been given the vaccine but not deliberately infected with Covid was used to assess the safety and effectiveness of the different vaccines being developed. The human challenge trials had to be approved by the research ethics committees of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the NHS Health Research Authority before they could begin. In February 2021, Sir Tony Blair, the former prime minister, suggested the first wave of the Covid outbreak around the world could have been shortened by three months if countries had collaborated more on vaccines, testing and drugs. He suggested that, in future, a new vaccine could be developed in as little as 100 days. Israel did not manage to get a vaccine ready more quickly than the UK, but it did roll out its vaccine programme more swiftly once it started, vaccinating 10 per cent of its population with a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine between Dec 20, 2020 and the start of 2021.

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