Commentary / World

Britain's response to COVID-19 has been world class

by Tyler Cowen


When the discussion turns to which countries have responded best to COVID-19 — and if nothing else, the pandemic frees up a lot of time for this debate — those most often mentioned are Taiwan, New Zealand and Vietnam. I would like to make a more surprising nomination: the United Kingdom. COVID-19 is a potential scourge to billions around the globe, so the pertinent question is which country has done the most to stop it.

At first glance, the U.K.’s performance doesn’t look great. It has one of the highest death rates per million, and the government’s initial response to COVID-19 was halting and contradictory. Its prime minister, Boris Johnson, contracted COVID-19 and was disabled for weeks. Nor are the British renowned for their love of mask-wearing.

That said, the most important factor in the global response to COVID-19 has to be progress on the biomedical front, and on that score the U.K. receives stellar marks. In fact, I would argue, it is tops in the world, and certainly No. 1 on a per capita basis.

First, a cheap steroid known as dexamethasone was the first drug shown to reduce death in COVID-19 patients, and the trials proving its effectiveness came from the U.K., with Oxford University playing a prominent role. In one sample, the drug reduced deaths among a vulnerable group by one-third (it is less effective for milder cases). Dexamethasone is now a part of treatment regimens around the world, and even poor countries can afford it.

It is fair to call this achievement a home run, or at least a triple (or must I say, "a six”?). And while Spain also had a role in proving the beneficial use of this drug, the U.K. clinched the path-breaking research.

The world is also in the midst of a race to find a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19. And so far the leading contender comes from the U.K. Results published Monday indicate that the vaccine generated an immune response in a group of about 1,000 patients. To develop this vaccine, the British-Swedish drug company AstraZeneca has been working with Oxford, and the company has inked a major deal for widespread distribution to poorer countries.

The side effects have been "mild or moderate,” according to the results, and the vaccine is moving more quickly than other major contenders into large-scale studies. That’s not the same as proof, much less finished results, but still the U.K. deserves high marks for this progress. There is talk of a million doses or more being ready by this fall, though it was commonly claimed earlier in the year that a good vaccine might be many years away.

You might wonder how the Oxford vaccine got so far so soon. The answer lies in preparation and investment in a diverse research portfolio. Oxford’s Jenner Institute, which has played a key role in development of the vaccine, already was working on other coronavirus issues and had a stock of knowledge about which potential coronavirus vaccines might prove harmless to humans. The researchers were able to scale up their efforts relatively quickly.

In sum, the best life-saving medicine and the best candidate vaccine both come from the U.K. For sure, there might be some elements of coincidence here, but the same can be said for the more effective public health responses as well.

By the way, if you are looking for the second leading candidate in the race to fight COVID-19, the most plausible answer is the United States, which has produced the useful antiviral remdesivir and is working on a broad array of vaccine candidates, with generally promising results, even if none of them is as far along as the work at Oxford. The U.S. may yet pass the U.K. for overall contributions, but as of mid-July in per capita terms the British are the winners by a landslide.

It is fine and even correct to lecture the British (and the Americans) for their poorly conceived messaging and public health measures. But it is interesting how few people lecture the Australians or the South Koreans for not having a better biomedical research establishment. It is yet another sign of how societies tend to undervalue innovation — which makes the U.K.’s contribution all the more important.

Critics of Brexit like to say that it will leave the U.K. as a small country of minor import. Maybe so. In the meantime, the Brits are on track to save the world.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.

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