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Covid: UK failed to prepare for inevitable pandemic, says vaccine scientist

‘We weren’t ready,’ says Professor Sarah Gilbert of Oxford Vaccine Group

Peter Stubley
Saturday 13 February 2021 23:32 GMT
Video: Latest figures on UK vaccinations

The UK repeatedly failed to heed warnings about the dangers of a pandemic like Covid-19, according to the scientist who designed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Professor Sarah Gilbert also said that lessons had not been learned until it was too late, or had not been learned at all.

“Yes, this particular virus came out of nowhere," she said in an interview with The Observer. "But we have also known for a long time that a ‘disease X’, as the WHO termed it, was going to appear at some point and start spreading.

"We had been warned. But again we weren’t ready.”

Prof Gilbert, who lead the team which developed the vaccine at Oxford University, added: "For example, we are still talking about the dangers of airborne viruses spreading in quarantine hotels.

"It has been known since the Mers outbreak in South Korea in 2015 that coronaviruses spread through the air."

The top scientist also criticised delays in building the UK’s Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Oxfordshire, which is backed by £158m of government funding.

"It is wonderful that we are getting the centre, but it won’t be ready until late 2021," she told The Observer. "It would have been better if it had been up and running in 2020. It is going to help us in the future, but there wasn’t sufficient emphasis on getting it ready quickly."

Earlier this week former health secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted the UK had prepared for the wrong pandemic and that decisions made while he was in office may have hampered the government's response.

In 2015 the Cabinet Office rated the chances of a flu pandemic as high, but stated: “The likelihood of a new disease spreading to the UK is low.”

In October the following year, the government carried out Exercise Cygnus to test plans for a flu pandemic. As a result it focused on vaccination and hospital capacity rather than methods used for Sars and Mers such as containment, community testing, contact tracing and isolation, and stockpiling personal protective equipment and ventilators.

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