The Observer view on British scientific success on Covid-19

Our scientists’ accomplishments on vaccines and genome sequencing are exemplary and must be shared with the rest of the world

A key worker from North Shields receives the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Newcastle upon Tyne, northeast England, on 9 January.
A key worker from North Shields receives the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Newcastle upon Tyne, northeast England, on 9 January. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/AFP/Getty Images
A key worker from North Shields receives the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Newcastle upon Tyne, northeast England, on 9 January. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Sun 14 Feb 2021 09.21 EST

A remarkable milestone will be passed today when government figures reveal that more than 15 million people in Britain have received at least one dose of a vaccine that will protect them from the severest impacts of Covid-19. It is a striking achievement. In just over two months, more than 20% of the population of the UK has been given protection against the worst ravages of a virus that has paralysed the nation and brought much of the rest of the planet to a standstill. For the first time since lockdown was imposed last March, the population can realistically conceive of enjoying some sort of a return to normality – not immediately, perhaps, but within some reasonable timeframe.

And for that reassurance, we should acknowledge our debt to the scientists who have strived so hard to bring the Covid-19 pandemic under control. This, we should stress, has been a global effort by researchers working across the globe in myriad disciplines, from genetics to immunology and from disease modelling to vaccine design. Science is, above all, an international activity and the work of its practitioners in China, the US, Germany and a host of other countries has been crucial in limiting the worst impact of the pandemic.

At the same time, it is appropriate to note the efforts of our own scientists who have played such a significant role in the battle against Covid-19. Britain may have achieved notoriety because our government has managed to bungle so much of the national response to the virus: calamitous failures that include our lateness in imposing our first lockdown; the shambolic distribution of effective PPE kit for our health workers, the pitiful rollout of the UK’s test, trace and isolate programmes: and the bewildering U-turns that were made over later lockdown measures in autumn and winter. A time will come when those responsible for these failures will be held to account.

In contrast, the efforts of scientists and doctors in the UK have been exemplary, with three striking examples illustrating the first-class quality of their work. The first focuses on the accomplishments of the Recovery programme set up by Oxford scientists Martin Landray and Peter Horby at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their programme uses randomised controlled trials of drugs to test the effectiveness of medicines that have been suggested by doctors as possible Covid treatments. Last year, these trials revealed that dexamethasone, a cheap treatment for inflammation, could save lives of seriously ill patients while a trio of much-touted therapies were shown to have no effect.

It has since been estimated that dexamethasone has saved the lives of more than 650,000 seriously-ill Covid patients. That is a stunning achievement and has now been followed up by Landray and Horby, who revealed last week that Recovery had determined that a second medicine – Tocilizumab, an immuno-suppressive drug used mainly in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis – could also save lives of people with severe Covid-19. Another weapon has been added to the armoury for fighting the virus.

Second on this list of British scientific achievements is the work of our genome sequencers. These scientists – working for the COG-UK (Covid-19 Genomics UK) consortium – now carry out almost half of all the world’s sequencing of genomes of Covid-19 strains that have been isolated in samples taken from patients across the world. It is thanks to their work that new variants have been isolated and their precise genetic structures determined with remarkable speed. Such work is destined to play a crucial role in determining the world’s responses to the inevitable appearance of potentially devastating new mutations. Britain is a world leader in the field of genetic sequencing.

And finally there is the work of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which is led by Sarah Gilbert and Andy Pollard and which has been responsible for the development and manufacture of theOxford/AstraZeneca vaccine . Approved in the UK by regulators late last year, the vaccine was given resounding backing by the World Health Organization last week, with the head of the WHO’s department of immunisation, vaccines and biologicals, Kate O’Brien, describing the jab as “efficacious” and “an important vaccine for the world”. Unlike many other vaccines, the Oxford jab is cheap and easy to store, making it a strong candidate for use in developing nations where costs and the difficulty of refrigeration would otherwise pose severe logistical problems.

Britain therefore finds itself well-placed, scientifically, in the battle against Covid-19. However, it would be a grievous mistake to limit our scientific competence to alleviating the suffering of our own people and keeping our discoveries to ourselves. The vaccines and drugs we have developed and the knowledge of the viral strains that we have isolated must be shared, as a matter of urgency, with the rest of the planet. Apart from the fact that there is a moral imperative for us to use our scientific expertise to help other countries, we must also acknowledge that we will never be free of Covid-19 until the entire planet is free of it.

The virus has no regard for national borders. As Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, has observed, until we are all safe, no one is safe. The pandemic is a global problem and we must share our vaccines, drugs and knowledge as widely and as quickly as possible.

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