U.K. Boosts Funding for Virus Vaccine as Lockdown Extended

(Bloomberg) --

Boris Johnson’s government is seeking to expedite production of a vaccine and drugs to treat Covid-19, both of which are seen as crucial to end nationwide restrictions on citizens’ movement that have brought the U.K. economy to a near-halt.

AstraZeneca Plc and the Wellcome Trust will form part of a new task force to coordinate efforts across academia and industry to solve the coronavirus puzzle, the government said on Friday. On top of the 250 million pounds ($312 million) already pledged to fund the search for a vaccine, 21 projects will share a 14 million-pound pot to fund their research, including a University of Oxford-led trial of a promising anti-malarial drug.

The announcement comes as the U.K., along with other countries, seeks a way to end lockdown measures that have suppressed the coronavirus pandemic, but only at huge expense to the economy and public finances. The government extended restrictions for at least three more weeks on Thursday, and still refuses to discuss its exit strategy to avoid watering down instructions for the public to stay at home where possible.

Though officials say the coronavirus outbreak may be peaking, the government is concerned that relaxing social-distancing measures too early risks a second wave of infections that could trigger another lockdown -- and damage the economy even further. Scientists have suggested some restrictions may need to remain until effective drugs, or even a vaccine, are ready -- a process that typically takes months, if not years.

Scientist’s Warning

“Do not expect this to be quick,” the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said at the daily Downing Street press conference on Friday. “There will be a plateau, and it will take a while for the numbers to come down.”

The Department of Health said Friday a further 847 people died from coronavirus in U.K. hospitals in the latest daily figures, bringing the total to 14,576. More than 108,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has promised to do “whatever it takes” to help the economy weather the crisis and protect jobs. On Friday, the Treasury extended its program that pays most of the wages of employees furloughed because of the coronavirus, averting potentially thousands of job losses.

Yet the cost of keeping the country indoors is mounting fast, in economic, social, and health terms as treatments are canceled and people avoid going to hospitals.

Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey said on Friday banks must get on with providing loans to small and medium-sized businesses to counter the economic shock from the coronavirus pandemic.

All of which is heaping pressure on the government to chart a course out of the lockdown. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said any easing of measures would require widespread testing, and indicated it would need to be accompanied by a significant increase in the U.K.’s ability to isolate new Covid-19 cases and trace their contacts.

“We do need to have comprehensive test track and trace in place as soon as possible and we need to get the technology right,” Hancock told the House of Commons health committee, which is chaired by his predecessor Jeremy Hunt, on Friday. “We need to have the people and we’re building that resource, and obviously we need to have the testing and we’re ramping that up as well.”

‘Smarter’

Yet the government has faced fierce criticism after it abandoned widespread testing in the community in March, instead focusing on trying to delay the spread of the virus through social-distancing measures. Hunt said other countries including South Korea and Taiwan had “taken a much smarter approach to mass community testing” that avoided the strictest lockdown measures.

“They locked down anyone who had Covid symptoms very robustly,” Hunt told Bloomberg Television. “By doing that, they’ve been able to avoid locking down the whole economy.”

Hancock has pledged to increase the number of tests to 100,000 a day by the end of the month, though data released Friday show only 21,328 tests are being carried out daily. The government has capacity to process more than 38,000, and is now offering testing to a wider group of workers, including police, fire and prison staff.

Meanwhile Anthony Costello, professor of global health at University College London and a former director at the World Health Organization, warned Hunt’s panel the U.K. could see further waves of the virus and 40,000 deaths by the end of the pandemic.

“Where were the system errors that led us to have probably the highest death rate in Europe?” Costello said. “We have to face the reality of that, we were too slow on a number of things -- but we can make sure in the second wave we’re not too slow.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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