Here is something you are unlikely to have read about in the pandemic year. Of all the countries in the world fighting Covid-19, Britain, in spite of its chaotic response to the pandemic and high death count, has done more than most countries on earth to meet the challenge of the coronavirus. This is not just my opinion. Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University in Virginia, declared a “world class” response from the UK in an interview with Bloomberg. It has been at the forefront of developing therapeutics to treat coronavirus; leads the Group of Seven richest countries in rolling out vaccination; and is responsible for mapping the genetic sequencing which allowed early isolation of the Kent (British), South African, and other coronavirus variants. Britain has several factors working in its favor.
Britain’s liberal market economy may lack the discipline of co-ordinated market economies such as Germany, but it is less constrained and has a creative research-based economic model that is more resilient. In 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, Britain was less prepared than Germany with pre-positioned ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE). But once the private sector and universities were let loose F1 engineers were building ventilators and University College in London had come up with a lighter, less intrusive, and more sensitive ventilator design.
What is impressive about the hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine is the speed, which again tilts in favor of the Anglo-Saxon liberal market model. The Oxford Jenner vaccine, adopted by AstraZeneca (AZ), was among the firsts to the finish line alongside the Pfizer Biontech (US-German) collaboration. Led by bio-science venture capitalist Kate Bingham, the UK struck early vaccine acquisition deals and created a fighting fund which speeded the research and testing and fast-tracked approvals through UK food regulatory agency the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. America’s Food & Drugs Administration was several weeks behind and the European Medicines Agency (moved from London to The Hague after Brexit) was months behind. More disappointing has been progress of world leading vaccine maker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). It was hoped that its adjuvant technology, combining with the skills of France’s Sanofi, might produce the defining and long-lasting vaccine for future treatments of coronavirus. There have been setbacks and it is unlikely that the GSK vaccine will see the light of day until autumn 2021. But it may, because of its superior manufacturing capabilities, yet become a default treatment for Covid. Of the 34-vaccines identified by the World Health Organisation as being research tested and trailed the vast majority (around 30) have emerged from the UK, US, and other free-wheeling nations. Only four so far can be attributed to the more static EU model.
It is also no coincidence that so much world leading science has found a home in the UK, which hosts four out of the world’s top 20 research universities. All of those universities—Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial (as well as Southampton)—have devoted enormous resources to combatting Covid-19. With the assistance of extra government R&D funding these institutions effectively have become the Bletchley Park in war against pandemic. Some of the most effective treatments for Covid-19, which have been successful in bringing down death rates and easing the damage to patients, are products of work done by UK scientists. One little observed by-product of Britain’s high infection and death rates (both consequences of the UK’s open economy and borders) is that there has been no shortage of test beds for the scientists. That’s something which couldn’t be done in nations, such as Australia, that have locked out the disease with draconian isolation measures. It was British researchers who discovered that the most effective drug treatment was dexamethasone, a widely used steroid, which is low cost and available in hospital and high street pharmacies around the world. Moreover, scientists at the University of Southampton and their commercial spin-out Synairgen sent the latter’s share into the stratosphere when they found that their inhaled anti-viral drug SNG001 significantly reduced the odds of patients hospitalized with Covid-19 coming down with respiratory disease. The first patient studies showed a remarkable 79pc effectiveness. Oxford Nanapore, another private firm spun out of university labs, has proved a pioneer in development of rapid testing for Covid infections.
As a result of “mission” collaboration involving the UK’s research universities, the medical research charity Wellcome Trust, and government agencies, it has been possible to turbo-charge treatments, vaccine development, manufacturability and procurement, and Covid research. The fight against Covid attracts Word War II metaphors. Out of chaos, ill preparation, and retreat from Dunkirk, Britain eventually triumphed. Extraordinary efforts by the science and pharma communities are making that happen again, and with medical resilience will come an economic bounce. The coiled spring of recovery should be released by early summer.
Formerly Financial Editor at The Guardian, Alex Brummer is now City Editor at the Daily Mail. He is a multi-award-winning journalist for international, economic, and financial reporting and the author of seven books, including The Crunch and Bad Banks.