The UK’s science success shows why its government is getting COVID wrong
The country really is a world leader in sequencing the coronavirus genome – and those findings cry out for an internationalist approach.
Boris Johnson’s government has made an utter mess of COVID: this must have hit home to millions of people as the pandemic passed the official 100,000 death toll this week, with the highest rate in the world of death by population size.
There is one good thing that the UK has led the world on, though: sequencing the genome of the coronavirus. The insights that work has given us show the world’s governments the way forward. What are the chances they will take it?
Whatever they do, there is no early end in sight. The UK may well reach its 15 million target for people vaccinated by mid-February, although a neat sleight of hand by Johnson has meant that target now means first dose, not full vaccination. Even if the vaccination works as well as it can, the UK faces a likely death toll of around 150,000 by mid-year.
Over the past year there has been a persistent pattern of mistakes and incompetence with an undercurrent of a near-ideological insistence that the economy must come first. As to the mistakes, Devi Sridhar in The Guardian lists five: minimal border control for most of the time; stopping community testing in mid-March; delaying the first lock-down that month; the dangerous and costly lack of PPE just when it was most needed; and overlying all of this has been poor leadership and confusing messaging.
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Much could be added to this, not least the chaotic handling of schools issues, further delays to lockdowns, the “eat out to help out” mess, the whole ‘chumocracy’ process so persistently highlighted by openDemocracy writers and the Serco Test and Trace system that has been so demonstrably inadequate. At least the Serco performance provides a strong argument against further creeping privatisation of the NHS.
As well as these issues there was the failure to recognise the growing threat from COVID-19 right back at the start of last year. Even by the beginning of January 2020 countries close to China were already checking their borders and preparing for a serious health emergency yet it took the Conservative government more than two months to take it seriously.
Its concern, instead was with the economy, and Johnson’s notorious Greenwich speech on 2 February made it absolutely clear that COVID-19 was nothing more than an annoying diversion from the far more important onset of Brexit and the UK’s glorious free-market future. Back in those early months the pandemic was little more than peripheral, and this set in motion 12 months of delays and incompetence.
There has been little recognition of this from the government itself, but one interesting development is that the Joint Select Committee on the National Security Strategy is now immersed in a new study on relevant mechanisms of governance: this will hopefully include a focus on those disastrous early shortcomings. The study arises from the committee’s report on biosecurity released just before Christmas, with its highly critical conclusion being the nearest we have got to a public inquiry so far.
In almost every aspect of government performance, what were once claimed to be world-leading capabilities in biosecurity preparedness have proved to be world-losing. The US under Donald Trump may have been singled out for particular opprobrium because of its COVID-19 failures but in terms of death rate the UK remains even worse.
Apart from the remarkable work of NHS staff, and widespread community support, there is, though, one area where the UK really is good. Thanks to far-sighted researchers, back in March the country embarked on a major programme of gene-sequencing thousands of samples of the virus and spotting the variations. Over 165,000 sequences have since been generated, more than twice as many as the US and far more than the rest of the world.
It was through this programme that the new variants, especially the more infectious Kent COVID-19 version, were understood, and work is continuing on the South African and Brazilian variants.
But there is a real sting in the tail of this issue.
The trouble with evolution
Until a couple of months ago there was a general consensus among virologists, clinicians, epidemiologists and others that COVID-19 was relatively stable, more so than flu viruses, vaccines for which have to be modified regularly. The discovery of new variants is therefore worrying because further mutations may turn out to be more infectious or more lethal, or both.
It all goes back to the basics of evolution: “that change should occur, and that change can be inherited”. Given a large enough pool of virus in a population, that gives a not-so-stable virus plenty of opportunity to change and evolve into more dangerous versions. The WHO’s dashboard is about to hit the 100 million mark for confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses worldwide: even if many of those are old cases it still gives an awful lot of scope for evolution to work its tricks.
This has several major implications. One is that more variants are well-nigh certain to arise and spread; another is that some are likely to be resistant to current vaccines and we should therefore assume that the COVID-19 pandemic really is long term. It will not be over by Christmas, not even Christmas 2022 or 2023.
Yet another is that ‘vaccine nationalism’ is fatally counterproductive. It is not much use to protect one group of people against current forms of the virus while leaving huge unvaccinated populations elsewhere in which the virus can mutate.
Close global cooperation is essential. Far more vaccine research, development and production facilities are required world-wide. Countries that have successfully responded to the pandemic should be emulated. Massive funding should be available across the Global South. It is essential to build on the many impressive examples of cooperation that can be seen across the world.
As for the UK, Johnson and his Cabinet might just come through this if they get their collective act together, the vaccine programme is a sterling success, new COVID-19 variants don’t develop, they behave like true internationalists and eschew their addiction to failing neoliberalism.
That would, though, be a change that would make St Paul’s Road to Damascus look like a socially distanced walk in the park. Perhaps things might change if they end up facing a public clamour to be charged with corporate manslaughter. Don’t rule that out.
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