Ex-Covid chief Sir John Bell warns another pandemic will ‘definitely happen’ – and says coronavirus could have been ‘much worse’

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Brits must ‘get used’ to the fact another pandemic is ‘definitely going to happen’, according to one of the UK’s leading experts. 

Sir John Bell, who served as Boris Johnson’s testing tsar during Covid, said it was ‘inconceivable’ the country wouldn’t face a further ‘big event’.

Addressing MPs sitting on the Health and Social Care Committee, he argued there was a ’20 or 30 per cent chance’ another pandemic would occur within 20 years.

Sir John, a regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, also admitted Covid itself could have been ‘much worse’. 

He told the probe if the Omicron variant, which didn’t emerge until November 2021,  had been the initial strain, the ‘whole system would have collapsed’. 

Sir John Bell (pictured), who served as Boris Johnson ‘s testing tsar during Covid, said it was ‘inconceivable’ the country wouldn’t face a further ‘big event’. Addressing MPs sitting on the Health and Social Care Committee, he argued there was a ’20 or 30 per cent chance’ another pandemic would occur within 20 years 

Sir John, a regius professor of medicine at Oxford University , also admitted Covid itself could have been 'much worse'. He told the probe if the Omicron variant, which didn't emerge until November 2021, had been the initial strain, the 'whole system would have collapsed'. Pictured, Sir John after being made a Companion of Honour during an investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle in December

Sir John, a regius professor of medicine at Oxford University , also admitted Covid itself could have been ‘much worse’. He told the probe if the Omicron variant, which didn’t emerge until November 2021, had been the initial strain, the ‘whole system would have collapsed’. Pictured, Sir John after being made a Companion of Honour during an investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle in December 

Asked by Tory MP Greg Clark if another ‘is going to happen at some point’, Sir John interjected ‘I would bet my house on it’. 

The Canadian-born immunologist added: ‘Everybody should just get used to that.

‘The real question is, what is the likelihood of that happening in the short term?

‘It will definitely happen in the medium or long term for sure. 

‘We’re doing a lot of things that are very high risk, climate change is not going to help with that because insects are moving all over. 

‘Some of the better estimates suggest there’s a 20 or 30 per cent chance of having another pandemic in the next 15 or 20 years. That’s a big number.

‘Now, whether it’s a really profound pandemic or one that’s not so bad, I think we have to wait and see but it seems inconceivable to me that we won’t have another big event.’

Sir John was also a member of the expert advisory group to the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, created to speed up research to produce a Covid vaccine.

He was among those who helped broker the deal with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to produce the Oxford vaccine — which is estimated to have saved more than six million lives globally in the first year of its roll-out.

He told MPs the Covid pandemic could have been ‘much worse’ as the proportion of infected people who died was low compared to what may have been expected for respiratory viruses.

Sir John said: ‘Case fatality rates of one per cent or less for respiratory viral infections… For people who’ve lost loved ones that’s a disaster. 

‘But you know, to be clear, from a societal point of view, that’s not so bad.’

For example, SARS had a case-fatality rate of around 10 per cent.  

If the Omicron variant had been the initial strain, rather than Wuhan, there would have been five-times as many deaths and the ‘whole system would have collapsed’, he warned.

Later, however, he admitted he was ‘disappointed’ by the UK’s Covid Inquiry and its failure to address the ‘real serious detail of the science that underpins’ the pandemic.

He said: I’ve been a bit disappointed by the inquiry and where it’s got to so far. I had hoped that it would lead us to a position where we understood what we did right and wrong in the last pandemic.

‘But also what we could do to deal with the future challenges in infectious disease pandemics.

Sir John was also a member of the expert advisory group to the Government¿s Vaccine Taskforce, created to speed up research to produce a Covid vaccine. He was among those who helped broker the deal with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to produce the Oxford vaccine ¿ which is estimated to have saved more than six million lives globally in the first year of its roll-out. Pictured, Sir John is made a Companion of Honour by King Charles III at Windsor Castle in December

Sir John was also a member of the expert advisory group to the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, created to speed up research to produce a Covid vaccine. He was among those who helped broker the deal with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to produce the Oxford vaccine — which is estimated to have saved more than six million lives globally in the first year of its roll-out. Pictured, Sir John is made a Companion of Honour by King Charles III at Windsor Castle in December

‘We haven’t really got there. It looks to me more like a programme for the legal profession, frankly, because I don’t think we’ve got into any of the real serious detail of the science that underpins it.’

He added: ‘There’s been a lot of discussion about process. One of the implicit outcomes was that if we have another pandemic, it might be good to have a different team in No 10. 

‘I’m not sure how that’s helpful. I just don’t think that’s really going to make a difference.’

It comes as Sir Jeremy Farrar, an influential member of SAGE — No10’s advisory panel, told the Covid Inquiry last year that another pandemic is ‘inevitable’. 

Giving evidence remotely he said: ‘It’s clear we’re living in a pandemic age, which is going to have more frequent and more complex pandemics.

‘And yet it is extraordinarily difficult when governments are faced with dealing with the challenges of day to day, to also put in place those critical infrastructures, resilience and surge capacity and spare capacity, that would allow us to deal with the unexpected, but inevitable disruptions that are going to occur.’

Sir Jeremy who now works for the World Health Organization as its chief scientist, quit SAGE during the pandemic after condemning the country’s laissez-faire response.

He also co-authored a book entitled ‘Spike: The Virus v The People’ that offered his ‘inside story’ on how the crisis unfolded.

He told the probe: ‘I think in the UK and around the world, despite the warnings of the last 20 years, there has been a complacency about the need to prepare for these sorts of major disruptive events which go well beyond health to the whole of society.

‘And the UK, yes, was complacent in regards to planning for that.’

Climate Change & Global WarmingOxford University

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