In his recent book, Jeremy Farrer, director at the Wellcome Trust and UK SAGE member argues, that today’s world is perfectly placed to be an incubator for more global pandemics. No matter how tough the restrictions have been for COVID 19 and how regrettable the death toll, COVID-19 is a relatively benign disease, with a low Case Fatality Rate compared to say, ebola, and one that falls off rapidly with younger age. By contrast the Spanish Flu of 1918 targetted the young. Imagine a chimera of Spanish flu and COVID.
Of course, one of the positive stories in the UK from COVID was the rapid development and trialling of the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine, only possible because of the preparedness of the Oxford team. Indeed, it is this preparedness that Jeremy Farrer argues should be the most important lesson from COVID.
Perhaps buoyed up by the Oxford vaccine’s success, the UK government recently published it’s Life Sciences Vision, with the bold ambition for the UK to become the global hub for Life Sciences. The Vision identifies the need to build on the UK’s research and development capabilities and become the leader in genomics, data infrastructure and trials. The role of the NHS is recognised and here the NHS’s single entity status gives it and advantage but also a large inertia.
The Vision also describes the need for an outstanding business environment for Life Sciences companies. And there’s some money behind it with the new Life Sciences Investment Programme providing £200 million in funding, potentially leveraging a further £800 million from outside sources.
All this still requires the UK to have both genuine innovation and those willing to exploit it. A recent survey by Beauhurst found that unusually, London does not dominate the university driven Life Sciences spin out scene. Instead, Oxford and Cambridge occupy the first two places, each with more than twice as many spin outs as the next institutions.
But here’s the rub. Our social distancing, work-from-home response to COVID is the very thing that’s damaging our innovation. Research by BCG and KRC Research highlighted an increase in productivity as a result of home/remote working was outweighed by a drop in innovation. It’s not hard to see why: sparking off another’s thoughts, the power of the team, seeing someone’s ideas but from a different angle, are all things almost impossible over zoom. Humans are social animals and everyone – innovator, entrepreneur and investor - need to work together.
So this is perhaps the real challenge for innovation. Not so much how ideas can lead to vaccines that mitigate pandemics, but how as a social being we learn how to both live with disease and innovate our way through. Our ancestors figured it out – so must we.
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