I Teach At Oxford, But I Don’t Want It To Win The Coronavirus Vaccine Race

The story will be clear: China, once again, has unleashed a threat to civilisation. But the best brains of the UK have saved the world, Dr Emily Cousens writes.
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The race to find a vaccine for Covid-19 is on.

In need of a question for your next Zoom pub quiz? Here’s one: “We’re getting used to seeing either Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock, Robert Jenrick, Rishi Sunak or Michael Gove wheeled out on to our screens at 5pm. But why is Jenrick the odd one out?”

The answer: he’s the only one that didn’t go to Oxford. (He went to Cambridge.) 

Oxford, that symbol of British excellence. Producing the finest minds in the world and, if this week’s news is anything to go by, leading the race to develop a vaccine against Coronavirus.

Surely I should be proud that the institution I have spent a decade studying and subsequently teaching at, could be the first to develop the vaccine?

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Not only proud, but hopeful and excited. My 72-year old Dad is usually a highly social and active man. However, he lives on his own in a very rural village and is becoming increasingly worried that he won’t be able to return to his usual ways for years – until such a vaccine is developed.

“If my university is the first to develop the vaccine, I’m worried it will be used to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.”

So why was my initial relief at hearing Oxford and Imperial are racing away to develop the vaccine followed by worry? 

Let’s suppose that Oxford does develop the first vaccine. What happens next? 

David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who heads a panel that advises the World Health Organization (WHO) on Coronavirus, says that there could be a production shortage. Researchers have also warned that this will lead to rich countries hoarding supplies. We were too late when it came to stockpiling PPE, but we won’t be caught out again. The vaccine, developed by our finest brains, is ours. And it will be Britons who are prioritised for protection. 

If there is enough vaccine to go round, the UK will be the world’s saviour. We’ll quickly forget the devastating delay of the UK government to take action, as Boris Johnson proudly safeguarded British institutions like individual liberty, and the pub, over lives. 

We’ll forget the lessons that the pandemic has taught us so far: that the UK and the US are in fact not exceptions at the global stage. That we are not only vulnerable but can also afford to learn lessons from countries, regardless of whether we have a special relationship with them – such as South Korea. That being white, male and Oxford-educated may not be the only criteria for effective leadership (the countries whose responses have been most widely praised, Germany and New Zealand among others, are all led by women).

The developments made by researchers at Oxford have been enabled by international co-operation among the research community. Whilst China has faced lots of questions about it’s sharing of information politically, according to Laura Spinney: “The unprecedented speed of virus development so far is thanks in large part to early Chinese efforts to sequence the genetic material of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. China shared that sequence in early January, allowing research groups around the world to grow the live virus and study how it invades human cells and makes people sick.”

Dr Claas Kirchhelle, fellow of the Research and Policy Unit at the Oxford Martin School, confirms that “there has been a radical sharing of information and a very rapid sequencing of the pathogen’s genetic code.” It is clear, then, that international co-operation saves lives. 

But do our Oxford-educated leaders think like this? Coronavirus is a global epidemic. Yet, rather than motivating the UK to take a proud role at the global stage, as leaders like Macron have urged, the UK is increasingly resorting to patriotism in response. 

This war-time rhetoric is useful in instilling a sense that this is a moment when individuals need to make sacrifices and put the country first. But this time, the enemy is not a nation. It is a microbe. So why do our collective solidarities end at the border? 

The race is on and researchers at Oxford are doing vital, life-saving work. But races have winners and losers. If my university is the first to develop the vaccine, I’m worried that it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.

The story will be clear: China, once again, has unleashed a threat to civilisation. But the best brains of the UK have saved the world.

Whilst I’m hopeful that I will be able to visit my Dad soon, this must not overshadow the key lesson of coronavirus: international cooperation saves lives. The research community knows this. Let’s hope our politicians do too. 

Dr Emily Cousens researches vulnerability and gender at Oxford Brookes university and teaches on the women’s studies masters course at University of Oxford.