‘The next pandemic is coming and we’re not ready’, top scientists warn

Sir John Bell and Sir David King among leading scientists to argue UK is no better prepared than it was in 2020, as new variant in India causes concern

Rebecca Thomas,Thomas Kingsley
Monday 24 April 2023 11:52 BST
Arcturus: What is the new Covid variant causing a surge in cases

The UK is not ready for the next global pandemic because public services are being dismantled and key research is being defunded, experts have claimed.

More than three years after the global outbreak of coronavirus, top scientists have warned that the UK is no better prepared for a pandemic than it was in 2020.

They say another epidemic on the scale of Covid-19 is inevitable, but that disinvestment in infection-monitoring services, dismantling of key infrastructure, and the state of the NHS mean the country is “losing ground”.

The warning comes as virologists told The Independent that the new Covid-19 variant behind a surge of 10,000 new Covid cases a day in India may turn more aggressive, and could become the dominant strain in the UK.

The variant, first identified in January and known as Arcturus, has been found in 22 countries, including the UK and the US, and has prompted India to resume its production of vaccines.

‘Sitting ducks’

Sir John Bell, a leading immunologist and a member of the UK’s Covid vaccine taskforce during the pandemic, said it was too easy to dismiss Covid-19 as a “once in a generation crisis”.

Writing in The Independent, he warned that it is “a question of when, not if, another pandemic strikes”, adding that the nation needs to adopt an “always on” approach that includes building a more resilient healthcare system, carrying out better surveillance, and identifying future threats.

“Despite everything we have learned, we are not ready for the next pandemic,” he wrote. “The next pandemic could be even more devastating than the last. We must be in a constant state of readiness for the next big health crisis – if we do not act now, we will not be forgiven.”

He referred to modelling that suggests there is a 38 per cent chance that another pandemic will happen within our lifetime, which would have “the potential to cause even greater destruction”.

Professor Teresa Lambe, one of the principal investigators leading the Oxford-AstraZeneca programme, said the UK had failed to take on board many “hard-learned lessons” from Covid. She warned that the public will be “sitting ducks” in a new pandemic if there are no further efforts by the government to invest in preparation.

She highlighted the government’s decision to “disband” tracking systems – including its “gold standard” Covid survey, the last remaining system used to monitor infections – as a sign that the country would not be fully prepared for another pandemic.

Writing in The Independent, she described such surveillance systems as “crucial” for identifying new variants, tracking case numbers and helping the UK to tackle any virus spread. She added: “We have learnt time and again that we need to track this virus carefully to distinguish if the current vaccine recommendations are enough.”

She added: “Without more of a concerted effort to work together and invest in pandemic preparedness, we are sitting ducks for the next virus.”

‘Nothing has changed’

Some experts also pointed to the issue of Covid-testing labs being mothballed, and plans to sell off the UK’s future vaccine manufacturing and research laboratory – the UK Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre – before it had even opened.

In addition, after a year of record A&E waits, ambulance delays and escalating waiting lists, there are concerns that the NHS is now in a worse position to tackle a pandemic than it was when Covid struck three years ago.

Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government, who led the 2006 research that closely predicted the Covid pandemic, said the world is likely to see another virus outbreak on the same scale in the next 15 years.

He told The Independent: “We’re in the same position as we were in 2020. Nothing has changed... if anything it has got worse.”

Sir David said the government had failed to invest in the NHS and he was in “no doubt” that it was in “a worse position than it was three years ago”.

The former government adviser added that, by failing to fund the health service or bolster Britain’s ability to respond to another pandemic, the government is “discounting the future”.

“That’s what the pandemic in 2020 proved: that we had jettisoned all of the processes that would have managed the epidemic. I see no signs of this being reversed at the moment,” he said.

“If you wait for the next epidemic, which I think is where the government may be now – if you wait until the next vaccine is developed, for whatever disease that is, it will take months and months for that vaccine to arrive. We cannot rely on that. We will have many, many cases, it’ll get really out of hand again, and then we’ll have hospitals completely overwhelmed by an outbreak of this kind.”

Losing ground

Professor Peter Horby, the lead for the groundbreaking Covid Recovery trial and head of the Pandemic Sciences Institute, also warned that the UK would be ill-prepared if a new pandemic were to hit in the coming years.

The Oxford professor said that, despite the government backing scientific work during Covid, disinvestment since means that the UK is now “losing ground”. He claimed that researchers on the Covid Recovery trial – which was launched in 2020 and has identified four treatments for the disease – are having to rely on philanthropic funds because there is no sustained investment.

“There were some good strategic moves by the UK government [in response to the pandemic], but I have been disappointed by what’s happened since then,” he said.

“What we’ve seen is there has been the discontinuation of funding of some of the jewels in the crown of the UK response, like the ONS survey, like the Covid Geonomics Consortium, like the Recovery trial ... the mothballing of the [Covid lab] facilities.

“Instead of building on the successes, [the government has] been dismantling the successes, and I find that a potential risk for the future.”

He added: “We may be back in the position that we saw ourselves in 2020, where we’ve got a new threat and we don’t have the diagnostics, the drugs, the vaccine, or the surveillance capabilities that we would desire.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have flexible pandemic response plans which are kept under constant review and continuously updated to reflect the latest scientific information, lessons learned from exercises and our response to emergencies, including Covid, to ensure preparedness.

“The UK Health Security Agency was set-up to combat future health threats and it continues to monitor the threat posed by Covid through surveillance systems and genomic capabilities, while maintaining our laboratory infrastructure and stock of lateral flow tests will ensure testing can be scaled up swiftly if a Covid wave results in significantly increased pressure on the NHS.

“A record £14.1 billion of funding for health and social care over the next two years will help the NHS to address the unprecedented impact of Covid and cut waiting times.”

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