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As it happens, there is a genuine reason to feel such positive emotion — and, believe it or not, it has everything to do with our performance over the virus.
This will seem odd to many British people: not only because of dilatory action by the Government but also because of our demography, the UK has suffered one of the very worst fatality rates, per capita, from the disease.
Yet in our contribution to the treatment of this plague, Britain leads the world.
I am not indulging in mere chauvinism: this is recognised beyond our shores. The American economist, Tyler Cowen, whose Marginal Revolution blog is respected across the globe, wrote an article entitled ‘The UK’s response to Covid has been world class’.
In July, when the Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) announced definitively that the UK would be buying and regulating Covid vaccines outside the EU’s system, the Guardian reflected the outrage of some Labour and Lib Dem MPs with the headline ‘UK plan to shun EU vaccine scheme ‘unforgiveable’ say critics’. They now look ridiculous
The UK was the trailblazer in demonstrating the effectiveness of the steroid dexamethasone, which was shown to reduce deaths among the most desperately ill by a third. This arose because of a strategic decision between the Oxford University professor of medicine and epidemiology Martin Landray (left) and Jeremy Farrar (right), the director of the Wellcome Trust, in March
Cowen declared: ‘At first glance, the UK’s performance doesn’t look great. It has one of the highest death rates per million and its Government’s initial response to Covid-19 was halting and contradictory.
That said, the most important factor in the global response to Covid-19 has to be progress on the biomedical front and on that score the UK receives stellar marks. In fact, I would argue, it is tops in the world.’
Exhibit A in Cowen’s case is that the UK was the trailblazer in demonstrating the effectiveness of the steroid dexamethasone, which was shown to reduce deaths among the most desperately ill by a third.
And, because it is so cheap, it has been taken up by poorer nations across the planet. As Cowen writes (in true American style): ‘It is fair to call this achievement a home run.’
This was not a lucky strike. It arose because of a strategic decision — taken at pace, in March — to launch what was called the Recovery Trial.
The outcome of a discussion between the Oxford University professor of medicine and epidemiology Martin Landray and Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, this recruited tens of thousands of NHS patients into a trial of various experimental remedies.
The point was that until proper testing at scale was done, and the results analysed, treatment of very ill Covid patients with novel methods would be hit or miss, based, sometimes, on little more than hunch or advocacy.
So, for example, President Trump influentially lauded the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a ‘game changer’ (this was before he expounded on the benefits of bleach injections).
But the Recovery Trial showed there was no detectable better outcome in the group of NHS patients who were given the drug, compared with those who weren’t.
Thanks to the astute purchasing policy of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, headed by one of Britain’s most successful investors in bio-technology, Kate Bingham, we have got many more doses of the vaccine per capita, and more quickly, than the citizens of the EU
The American economist, Tyler Cowen, whose Marginal Revolution blog is respected across the globe, wrote an article entitled ‘The UK’s response to Covid has been world class’
Such trials are as vital in proving what doesn’t help, as much as in showing, statistically, what does.
An example of the former was how the Recovery Trial demonstrated that injections of blood plasma from recovered Covid patients into those very ill with the disease had no observable benefit.
It was a blow to that wing of the Recovery Trial, which was closed down, yet vital information, again, of worldwide benefit. But as Professor Landray told The Times science correspondent Rhys Blakely, the Recovery Trial testing of dexamethasone was ‘a beautiful result’. It is estimated to have saved one and half million lives around the planet so far.
Then there is the extraordinary work of the British Genomics industry, which, as the Policy Exchange think-tank noted in a paper last week, is another world-leader in dealing with the coronavirus — and especially vital, now, in identifying variations and mutations.
The paper, discussing the so-called ‘Kent’ variant (known to scientists as ‘B117’), notes: ‘It was only due to a commitment by the UK Genomics Consortium to sequence one in 20 infections that the variant was picked up as quickly as it was.
‘The UK has in total sequenced more than 170,000 virus mutations to date — staggeringly, this equates to about 50 per cent of all those sequenced worldwide.’
Again, this is recognised in the U.S. Its Atlantic magazine, in a lengthy investigation last week of the risks of Covid-19 mutation, quoted an American scientist in this field complaining that ‘we do not know if a city like New York would be devastated’ by a new variant. ‘Sequencing is the most important thing,’ he said. ‘We don’t have a big organised project like the UK.’
Yet there is one UK achievement still more important — and that, too, has its roots at Oxford University: a cheap, reliable vaccine, suitable for not just this country but for poorer nations where storage and transportation at ultra-low temperatures (required for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine) is less feasible.
More from Dominic Lawson for the Daily Mail…
The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine can be kept in an ordinary refrigerator. And it was a condition of Oxford’s Jenner Institute (acknowledged as the world leader in coronavirus vaccine research even before Covid-19 appeared) that any pharmaceutical firm which wanted to be its commercial partner should offer the product at no more than cost price in the UK and the rest of the developed world while the pandemic is rife, and at cost price in perpetuity to poorer nations. It was the Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca which came up to that mark.
The executive director of the Foundation of Vaccine Research in Washington DC, Peter Hale, is another American expert who hails Oxford’s unique contribution. In November, he told the Financial Times: ‘They were first out of the gate of the coronavirus research back in January 2020 and have kept their frontrunner status. I consider them ‘the little engine that could’.’
Now, millions of Britons are being given the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine (alongside the much more expensive Pfizer one). Yet the EU has still not approved it for use, and, in general, its vaccine strategy has been lumbering and over-bureaucratic compared with ours.
Last spring, the Observer ran a story, based on a letter sent to them by various academics and lawyers attacking our Government’s decision to go it alone, with the headline, ‘Brexit means coronavirus vaccine will be slower to reach the UK’.
In July, when the Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced definitively that the UK would be buying and regulating Covid vaccines outside the EU’s system, the Guardian reflected the outrage of some Labour and Lib Dem MPs with the headline ‘UK plan to shun EU vaccine scheme ‘unforgiveable’ say critics’.
President Trump influentially lauded the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a ‘game changer’ (this was before he expounded on the benefits of bleach injections)
Belgian deputy prime minister Petra De Sutter (centre) said the UK is ‘vaccinating people with vaccines that do not have the same standard as the ones we use’ – that untruth was just sour grapes
They now look ridiculous. Thanks to the astute purchasing policy of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, headed by one of Britain’s most successful investors in bio-technology, Kate Bingham, we have got many more doses per capita, and more quickly, than the citizens of the EU.
And thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our own Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to streamline its processes but without taking a single shortcut, approval for the Pfizer vaccine came more quickly than it did from the EU medical regulator.
(That would have been even more delayed, but for belated outrage by German politicians, since it was actually invented by German scientists.)
As for the remark by the Belgian deputy prime minister, Petra De Sutter, that the UK is ‘vaccinating people with vaccines that do not have the same standard as the ones we use’, that untruth was just sour grapes.
And as the UK’s vaccine roll-out leaves the EU trailing (nowhere more so than France, where ‘anti-vax’ sentiment is far more dangerously prevalent than here), Britons can feel, on an individual and personal level, that our own Government has done the right thing over Covid-19, for all the missteps of the past year.
I can do no better than end with the concluding words of Tyler Cowen, in his praise for the overall contribution of our scientists, researchers and, yes, policy-makers: ‘Critics of Brexit like to say that it will leave the UK as a small country of minor import. Maybe so. In the meantime, the Brits are on track to save the world.’