Celebrating feats of UK science during Covid


By Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser

Three days ago – Friday 11 March – marked two years since the World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic. And although the pandemic is not over, we have reached a stage where life in the UK is beginning to feel more normal again, and we are here thanks to science. It’s not possible to cover all the many accomplishments of scientists during the pandemic, but for the sake of brevity I want to pick out four – vaccines, therapeutics, genomics and SAGE.

Vaccines have dramatically changed the course of the pandemic and have done so much faster than anyone dared hope. This is thanks to new technologies, smart manufacturing, public-private partnerships, flexible innovation-focused approaches to regulation, and superb operational rollout. The first vaccines were ready for clinical trials within a month of WHO’s official declaration of a pandemic, with safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines available after just 307 days. The Vaccines Taskforce brought together expertise in vaccines, drug development, manufacturing and clinical trials from industry, academia and the public sector. The UK originated Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine has been a vital tool across the globe and saved many lives.

In therapeutics, the RECOVERY trial delivered crucial therapeutic treatments and quickly identified what worked and what didn’t. At one stage something like 12 per cent of all hospitalised Covid-19 patients in the UK were included in the study and it was the fastest recruiting clinical trial of all time. RECOVERY showed that dexamethasone, an inexpensive and widely available steroid, reduced the risk of death for patients with severe disease and has subsequently saved around a million lives worldwide. Equally importantly, it showed which treatments did not work and stopped further unnecessary effort or misguided use.

Huge contributions were also made in genome sequencing. International collaboration is vital to detecting new variants quickly, and the UK has been a key contributor to this effort. The UK started to sequence samples from people infected with SARS-CoV-2 in March 2020, uploading them to a global database. At one stage the UK had contributed over 50% of all SARS-CoV-2 sequences and by February 2022, the UK had uploaded two million sequences. This was an extraordinary effort by a consortium of academic and public laboratories (COG-UK).

Throughout the pandemic, science has played a vital role and provided advice to government, including through the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which I had the privilege to co-Chair with the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty. Formation of a SAGE is triggered to provide emergency scientific and technical advice to decision makers in government and includes leading experts from a range of fields depending on the type of emergency. SAGE committees usually meet for a handful of meetings. In this case SAGE has met over 100 times and involved clinicians, epidemiologists, modellers, virologists, immunologists, behavioural scientists, public health doctors, and experts in therapeutics and vaccines, amongst others.

SAGE for the pandemic involved hundreds of independent experts who, like so many others over the past two years, have gone above and beyond to deliver high-quality outputs at speed, based on the best available evidence. This evidence has also been made available to the public throughout the pandemic with the publication of over 1,100 papers.

Of all the data and information considered at SAGE, the modelling has arguably piqued the greatest interest. Modellers have regularly produced scenarios to inform planning, using a range of assumptions to produce best and worst-case projections. Throughout the UK, people became familiar with R values and exponential curves.

The UK is fortunate to have world-renowned mathematical and epidemiological modellers and their expertise and insights have provided a crucial input to discussions at SAGE, where modelling was considered alongside other science to give advice to ministers and policy makers. The multiple studies set up to study everything from infection rates across the population (for example the ONS study), to the effects and duration of immunity in healthcare workers or schoolchildren, or the consequences of long covid, have been crucial to understanding this pandemic.

During British Science Week, we should celebrate these immense scientific efforts of the past two years from academia, industry, research institutes and government laboratories. The response to the pandemic was the biggest ever peacetime mobilisation of UK science towards a common goal. It saw unprecedented collaboration across disciplines and organisations. As we learn the lessons from this period, we must also maintain the momentum which has seen resources channelled into research, and has seen the British public rally behind science to solve the problems we face, including of course the challenge of climate change. It is up to all of us to build on this goodwill and use it to further establish the UK as a science superpower.