Covid-19 The Enigma

When asked on BBC’s Newsnight, how he felt Britain was coping with Covid-19, Mervyn King, the former Chairman of the Bank of England betrayed a misplaced faith in a country which, in his day, was as a biotech centre of excellence but has since been eclipsed in this respect by Germany, the US and China

With Covid-19 on the verge of becoming a global pandemic it was hoped Britain’s scientific institutions would pool their resources and crack the virus in much the same way, 80 years earlier, they cracked the Enigma code. But instead of a modern-day Bletchley Park we got a collection of vainglorious virologists fighting like ferrets in a sack. With so much prestige and future funding at stake institutions which should have been co-operating competed for resources and media attention. University chancellors across Britain viewed with envy the high profile of Neil Ferguson’s department at Imperial College and the influence it wielded within the government’s department of health. While there have been many instances of inter-institutional collaboration these came about despite, rather than because of, any government initiative.

Nightly the BBC explained to the public there were both mild and severe forms of Covid-19 and yet virologists failed to consider this meant the virus might already be present in Britain. The first mention of the word ‘asymptomatic’ should have seen scientists travelling to Cambridge to test residents of the city for the virus. Cambridge because of the city’s close and multiple level relationships with Wuhan. Tests should have been made on café workers and punt operators who came face to face with Chinese students, businessmen who travelled to Wuhan, lecturers who tutored Chinese students. It has taken until this week for the department of public health to plan random testing of members of the public to assess the extent of epidemic, something that was first suggested when the government was deciding whether or not to close down schools.

Wuhan’s Li Wenliang risked prosecution to bring an unusual rise in pneumonia cases to the public’s attention and yet no-one in Britain thought to check back through hospital records in Addenbrookes or any other hospital in the UK. An unexplained increase in pneumonia cases, easy to spot as this winter’s annual influenza epidemic failed to materialise, would have provided early warning of the presence Covid-19 in the UK. Images of the citizens of Wuhan carrying Covid-19 into the corridors of hospitals should have alerted virologists to a new transmission model. Here was a virus that arrives in a country by stealth and achieves scale before making itself known. It operates on a macro scale as it operates on a micro scale, attacking a country in much the same way it attacks the individual. Covid-19 tries to overwhelm a country’s healthcare system using a strategy it employs to overwhelm a person’s immune system. Britain failed to take on board what was happening in China and later ignored the experience of near neighbours such as Germany where the virus was helped on its way when carriers were allowed untested into care homes. A month later we were repeating the same mistake.

Hopefully, when this pandemic is over, the British Government will think again about how it resources and organises scientific research so we can crack the Covid-19 code before it attacks us again.