If it is true that the UK government has screwed up a lot of its response to the Coronavirus epidemic the one area in which it has excelled has been the development of the first and most practical vaccine. There are a lot of factors in that success.
England is particularly strong in the area of biotech. Cities like Oxford and Cambridge have become hubs for all kinds of small industry based biotech companies such that the links between innovative university based labs were close.
The UK leads in Genome research. The UK variant was spotted early in Kent because government funding has been focused on genomic sequencing on infectious diseases since 2013, so the researchers had a pre-existing conduit for govt ready cash.
Unlike the microbiology labs needed to make test and trace a reality (which Johnson first called off early in March of last year when it would have been most effective and later dithered over implementation), genomic infrastructure was in place.
Places like the Wellcome Sanger Lab in Cambridge account for something like 70% of all the sequencing done in the UK in the last 20 years. Compared to its nearest rivals, Denmark and Australia, the UK has conducted 10 times more sequencing.
In addition, most medical graduates in the UK have a strong scientific base to the undergraduate training which is topped up by a programme of ongoing in-post training. This eased the job of putting research trials into the field and tracking data.
And finally, for once, having a single nation-wide state owned organisation with high levels of public trust has meant that the delivery of vaccines to those who need it most has been much quicker than first anticipated.
However there are likely to be a few kinks in the road before we get entirely out of this one. This is a novel virus which has gone global very quickly. The UK variant is likely to be just the first of many complex mutations to come.
Imperial College today has refocused its work from developing a primary vaccine to precisely this area of tracking (through genome sequencing) the multitude of variations likely to kick in before this is over. Deep uncertainty is not going away.
The FT quotes Doctor Robin Shattock…
“Although our first generation Covid-19 vaccine candidate is showing promise in early clinical development, the broader situation has changed with the rapid roll out of approved vaccines,” he said.
“It is not the right time to start a new efficacy trial for a further vaccine in the UK, with the emphasis rightly placed on mass vaccination in response to the rapid spread of the new variant.”
This is the same country that bungled its first response, and that ten years of cuts meant entering this crisis with an NHS short by 100,000 staff and 15,000 beds, short of ICU beds and PPE, and waiting lists for the treatment of chronic illness.
At the weekend in an interview with CNN, Micheál Martin suggested that with the virus moving so quickly now rather than going for an all island strategy it is now time for Ireland and the UK to adopt more of a two nation strategy.
With the European Medicines Agency dragging its heels on Oxford AZ, one his MEPs in Brussels (Billy Kelleher) is now calling for “the EMA to seek global agreement with other authorisation agencies on the mutual recognition of vaccines.”
To a large degree I suspect the programmatic rigidity of the Republic’s early messaging means a more nuanced approach will be difficult to cut through in the currently highly emotional (and frankly panicked) atmosphere of the Dublin media.
Too often western governments have stood behind science(tists) and failed to fashion a more nuanced narrative “couched in provisional terms that ensure their credibility is not shredded when reality springs a surprise”.
As Richard Bronk notes in this great piece on the interplay of science and politics…
“The art of good governance is to avoid taking scientific illumination of a single aspect of reality as the whole truth. It involves combining the generalisable and testable findings of science with an understanding of ‘a particular situation in its full uniqueness’.”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty