A medical worker in PPE suit holds the door, to a Covid-19 positive area, in the ICU at a hospital in Cambridge
Representational image | A medical worker in PPE suit holds the door to a Covid-19 positive area, in the ICU at a hospital in Cambridge | Photo: Neil Hall | EPA via Bloomberg
Text Size:

When the discussion turns to which countries have responded best to Covid-19 — and if nothing else, the pandemic frees up a lot of time for this debate — those most often mentioned are Taiwan, New Zealand and Vietnam. I would like to make a more surprising nomination: the U.K. Covid-19 is a potential scourge to billions around the globe, so the pertinent question is which country has done the most to stop it.

At first glance, the U.K.’s performance doesn’t look great. It has one of the highest death rates per million, and the government’s initial response to Covid-19 was halting and contradictory. Its prime minister, Boris Johnson, contracted Covid-19 and was disabled for weeks. Nor are the British renowned for their love of mask-wearing.

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 U.K. receives stellar marks. In fact, I would argue, it is tops in the world, and certainly No. 1 on a per capita basis.

First, a cheap steroid known as dexamethasone was the first drug shown to reduce death in Covid-19 patients, and the trials proving its effectiveness came from the U.K., with Oxford University playing a prominent role. In one sample, the drug reduced deaths among a vulnerable group by one-third (it is less effective for milder cases). Dexamethasone is now a part of treatment regimens around the world, and even poor countries can afford it.

It is fair to call this achievement a home run, or at least a triple (or must I say, “a six”?). And while Spain also had a role in proving the beneficial use of this drug, the U.K. clinched the path-breaking research.

The world is also in the midst of a race to find a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19. And so far the leading contender comes from the U.K. Results published on Monday indicate that the vaccine generated an immune response in a group of about 1,000 patients. To develop this vaccine, the British-Swedish drug company AstraZeneca has been working with Oxford, and the company has inked a major deal for widespread distribution to poorer countries.

The side effects have been “mild or moderate,” according to the results, and the vaccine is moving more quickly than other major contenders into large-scale studies. That’s not the same as proof, much less finished results, but still: The U.K. deserves high marks for this progress. There is talk of a million doses or more being ready by this fall, though it was commonly claimed earlier in the year that a good vaccine might be many years away.

You might wonder how the Oxford vaccine got so far so soon. The answer lies in preparation and investment in a diverse research portfolio. Oxford’s Jenner Institute, which has played a key role in development of the vaccine, already was working on other coronavirus issues and had a stock of knowledge about which potential coronavirus vaccines might prove harmless to humans. The researchers were able to scale up their efforts relatively quickly.


Also read: Easy, ‘do it at home’ saliva test to detect Covid-19 under trial in UK’s Southampton


In sum, the best life-saving medicine and the best candidate vaccine both come from the U.K. For sure, there might be some elements of coincidence here, but the same can be said for the more effective public-health responses as well.

By the way, if you are looking for the second leading candidate in the race to fight Covid-19, the most plausible answer is the U.S., which has produced the useful antiviral remdesivir and is working on a broad array of vaccine candidates, with generally promising results, even if none of them is as far along as the work at Oxford. The U.S. may yet pass the U.K. for overall contributions, but as of mid-July in per capita terms the British are the winners by a landslide.

It is fine and even correct to lecture the British (and the Americans) for their poorly conceived messaging and public health measures. But it is interesting how few people lecture the Australians or the South Koreans for not having a better biomedical research establishment. It is yet another sign of how societies tend to undervalue innovation — which makes the U.K.’s contribution all the more important.

Critics of Brexit like to say that it will leave the U.K. as a small country of minor import. Maybe so. In the meantime, the Brits are on track to save the world.

When the discussion turns to which countries have responded best to Covid-19 — and if nothing else, the pandemic frees up a lot of time for this debate — those most often mentioned are Taiwan, New Zealand and Vietnam. I would like to make a more surprising nomination: the U.K. Covid-19 is a potential scourge to billions around the globe, so the pertinent question is which country has done the most to stop it.

At first glance, the U.K.’s performance doesn’t look great. It has one of the highest death rates per million, and the government’s initial response to Covid-19 was halting and contradictory. Its prime minister, Boris Johnson, contracted Covid-19 and was disabled for weeks. Nor are the British renowned for their love of mask-wearing.

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 U.K. receives stellar marks. In fact, I would argue, it is tops in the world, and certainly No. 1 on a per capita basis.

First, a cheap steroid known as dexamethasone was the first drug shown to reduce death in Covid-19 patients, and the trials proving its effectiveness came from the U.K., with Oxford University playing a prominent role. In one sample, the drug reduced deaths among a vulnerable group by one-third (it is less effective for milder cases). Dexamethasone is now a part of treatment regimens around the world, and even poor countries can afford it.

It is fair to call this achievement a home run, or at least a triple (or must I say, “a six”?). And while Spain also had a role in proving the beneficial use of this drug, the U.K. clinched the path-breaking research.

The world is also in the midst of a race to find a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19. And so far the leading contender comes from the U.K. Results published on Monday indicate that the vaccine generated an immune response in a group of about 1,000 patients. To develop this vaccine, the British-Swedish drug company AstraZeneca has been working with Oxford, and the company has inked a major deal for widespread distribution to poorer countries.

The side effects have been “mild or moderate,” according to the results, and the vaccine is moving more quickly than other major contenders into large-scale studies. That’s not the same as proof, much less finished results, but still: The U.K. deserves high marks for this progress. There is talk of a million doses or more being ready by this fall, though it was commonly claimed earlier in the year that a good vaccine might be many years away.

You might wonder how the Oxford vaccine got so far so soon. The answer lies in preparation and investment in a diverse research portfolio. Oxford’s Jenner Institute, which has played a key role in development of the vaccine, already was working on other coronavirus issues and had a stock of knowledge about which potential coronavirus vaccines might prove harmless to humans. The researchers were able to scale up their efforts relatively quickly.

In sum, the best life-saving medicine and the best candidate vaccine both come from the U.K. For sure, there might be some elements of coincidence here, but the same can be said for the more effective public-health responses as well.

By the way, if you are looking for the second leading candidate in the race to fight Covid-19, the most plausible answer is the U.S., which has produced the useful antiviral remdesivir and is working on a broad array of vaccine candidates, with generally promising results, even if none of them is as far along as the work at Oxford. The U.S. may yet pass the U.K. for overall contributions, but as of mid-July in per capita terms the British are the winners by a landslide.

It is fine and even correct to lecture the British (and the Americans) for their poorly conceived messaging and public health measures. But it is interesting how few people lecture the Australians or the South Koreans for not having a better biomedical research establishment. It is yet another sign of how societies tend to undervalue innovation — which makes the U.K.’s contribution all the more important.

Critics of Brexit like to say that it will leave the U.K. as a small country of minor import. Maybe so. In the meantime, the Brits are on track to save the world. –Bloomberg


Also read: An Oxford immunologist breaks down how the university’s vaccine works against Covid-19


 

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism

VIEW COMMENTS

3 COMMENTS

  1. United world effort is the need of the day……..postamartam is done for fact finding,not blaming or praising 🙏🏼

  2. Crap !! Who wrote this trash ? U.K. has the highest death per capita in the civilized world !!!! Sack the idiot ASAP .. don’t understand basic math !!! Top three death spots in the world 🌎 1 ? 2 ? 3 UK !!!! Bet the Toby who wrote this sells Spanish timeshares !!!!!!

  3. This article is a puff piece for UK. No doubt the Oxford vaccine has progressed very well and that a million doses will be ready by fall. The author peppers the words ‘poor countries’ and ‘saving the world’ throughout his article. It fails to mention that UK and US have secured combined commitment and laid claim to the first >400 million doses for their population instead of equitable access and distribution to all people that include the poorer countries. Apparently, human rights considerations are only relevant for ‘poorer’ countries like India.

Comments are closed.