The discovery in Britain that a £5 steroid, dexamethasone, can be effective in treating Covid marks a potential breakthrough in our understanding of the virus. Much remains to be learned about the wider potential of the drug but the claims made about its success are striking: that it reduces deaths by a third in patients on ventilators and by a fifth in patients receiving oxygen only. It has not been shown to benefit Covid patients who do not require oxygen. But this can still, in a global pandemic, mean thousands of lives saved.
There are two further points to be made. With Covid-19, there is a better chance of finding a treatment for the virus than of finding a vaccine. Second, the gathering and interrogation of this data can be of huge use in finding out what works and what does not.
The UK study looked at the role of old familiar generic drugs. Pharmaceutical companies understandably focus on developing new products: that is their raison d’être. There is no real money to be made in the discovery about the role of steroids.
It is understandable that Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has been so keen to tell the world about dexamethasone. Some 4,000 Covid patients are dying each day across the world, and if even a small fraction of those lives can be saved with a widely available drug then every day counts.
But another mass experiment is going on, which is also worthy of the British government’s attention. In schools, too, every day counts. Lockdown is being eased all over the world, without much sign of the ‘second wave’ that so many feared. In hundreds of thousands of classrooms, children are being taught in the same way as they were pre-Covid, without any viral backlash. The two-metre rule should now be abolished and lighter regulations put in place, with schools first in line for a return to normal.
The evidence of London, too, needs to be taken into account. For two weeks, now, the number of new lab-confirmed Covid cases has been, on average, two dozen a day — in a city of nine million. Nor have mass protests in Britain over the past fortnight resulted in the faintest flicker of a resurgence in new cases. There has been no triggering of the early warning systems (specifically in calls to the 111 hotline that mention Covid--related symptoms). We know this because the government is better now at collecting data. And the data should embolden ministers to move faster in reopening society.
The new cases, when they arrive, are isolated. This week we have had news of an outbreak of 106 cases in Beijing, which may lead to the city being locked down in the way that Wuhan was in January. Bizarrely, China has responded by halting the import of European salmon. But overall it is remarkable how little resurgence there has been in countries which have gradually eased their way out of lockdown or other restrictions.
A few weeks ago Boris Johnson suggested that the Covid-19 crisis might not be solved until a vaccine is found. No one knows when that will be. Yet the announcement about dexamethasone reminds us that therapeutic drugs can go a long way to make up for the lack of a vaccine. Look at HIV/Aids. In the 1980s, a vaccine was thought to be four or five years away. In fact it still hasn’t been found — but in the meantime retroviral drugs have done a pretty good job of suppressing the virus within individuals, to the extent that new infections have fallen sharply.
Given the success that other European countries have had in relaxing lockdowns without rekindling the virus, it is puzzling that our government is proceeding so gingerly. The level of infection among the population is now so low that it does not qualify under the definition of an epidemic. That has been the case for several weeks. Yet non-essential shops have only just re-opened, and there is no firm date for the re-opening of bars, restaurants, theatres, hotels — only a promise that it won’t happen before 4 July.
The Prime Minister began this crisis seemingly unaware of the medical havoc that it might cause. Now he risks seeming to ignore the economic and social damage it has already caused — and the even greater havoc it will cause if lockdown is not lifted soon. Businesses can only keep going for so long without any income. Should lockdown be imposed for much longer, we will begin to see a cascade of collapse.
Six months ago, Boris Johnson won an election partly by promising to be the entrepreneurial candidate, the one who would lead us away from the EU’s precautionary principle towards faster growth. It is time he finds the resolve shown by his European counterparts — and leads Britain out of lockdown so that the recovery can begin.