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Rebellion in the ranks of science

07 May, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Sir Paul Nurse

SIR Paul Nurse may be upset with the government over its handling of the Covid-19 disease but he is making sure the prestigious medical facility, the Francis Crick Institute, plays its part in the battle.

Sir Paul, director and chief executive of the Crick, was a panellist on the BBC’s Question Time last week and couldn’t restrain his annoyance with the government’s decision to use the “major labs” for testing for the disease as and not the relatively smaller ones such as the Crick in Somers Town.

To him that was a wasted opportunity and he scathingly described the government’s target of 100,000 tests as a PR stunt. Why 100,000, he asked, why that particular figure? At one point, rather harshly, Sir Paul condemned the “weasely” words of government officials.

But I can report that the Crick has now tested 10,000 swabs from doctors, nurses, porters and admin staff at local hospitals such as the Royal Free, UCLH, Barnet General, Royal Marsden and Northwick Park.

The Crick switched more than 50 researchers to carry out the programme led by Charles Swanton, chief clinician at the Cancer Research UK charity – he is a leading expert in lung cancer at the UCLH.

I emailed Charles Swanson on Tuesday evening and within minutes he rang me – it was clear he wanted to enthusiastically share the news that the lab had hit the 10,000 figure.

Charles Swanton

“It’s amazing how hard everyone worked – some have been doing 10 or 12 hours at a time,” he said.

They would all have had to be gowned, gloved and masked, of course, before they got down to their tests – an arduous and exhausting job.

It’s obvious that to him, as with so many scientists, the most important goal is to beat the crisis.

He said that when they first started testing a few weeks ago about 40 per cent tested positive for the disease – but that figure has now dropped to a much lower point, probably because of the curb on transmissions in the lockdown.

It has been known for some time that Paul Nurse – “don’t call me Sir? he joked with a fellow panelist on Question Time, “I only use that when I’m fundraising” – isn’t in favour with the government because, like so many scientists, he believes too many wrong decisions have been taken on how to deal with Covid-19. His views probably clash with those of Boris Johnson’s controversial adviser Dominic Cummings.

The Francis Crick Institute

When I reported last week about the secrecy over the membership of the government’s advisory body of experts – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – I did not know that another group of scientists were setting up an alternative body and that they would show their meetings on YouTube, in contrast with SAGE, whose meetings are held in secret. Nor are the minutes or reports of SAGE meetings made available to the public. Who they were was never disclosed. Few in the media, except for the Guardian, seemed concerned but an embarrassed government began to disclose this week some of SAGE’s membership.

The first serious act of rebellion the government has had to face was the announcement over the weekend of the rival body of experts – and its first public discussion on YouTube on Monday. The partisan press didn’t pay much attention to it – one tabloid dismissed the experts as “lefties”. The group is headed by Sir David King who was chief scientific adviser under Tony Blair.

I found the two-hour YouTube discussion refreshing and illuminating in contrast to the essentially stage-managed daily press briefings held by a government minister flanked by two experts.

It was difficult to disagree with Dr Gabriel Scally, an epidemiologist at the Royal Society of Medicine, who challenged the lack of checks at our ports and airports. There were myriad concerns: could many of the deaths in care homes have been prevented? Why was the UK recommendation for people with symptoms to isolate for seven days different from that given by the WHO which recommends 14 days?

And a view that the search for a vaccine, however undoubtedly important, will not end the current crisis – vaccines are not 100 per cent successful, failures are common, viruses can mutate.

The crisis could stretch ahead for a long time still.

The rival group intends to give evidence to the parliamentary health committee.

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