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23 March 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 8:14am

Spotlight Leader: Innovating in the public interest

Public investment has been key to the success of the vaccine drive. 

By Spotlight

One year ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic. Cases outside China had been rapidly increasing. On the morning of 12 March 2020, the number of confirmed cases in Europe passed 20,000 and almost 1,000 people had died on the continent. Since then, more than 118 million cases have been recorded worldwide. At press time, the global death toll was 2,630,755, according to the John Hopkins University Covid-19 data tracker.

But amid the pain and the grief of the past year, between death counts and economic crisis, innovation and human ingenuity have given cause for hope. The development of Covid-19 vaccines has been the fastest in history.

The race for the vaccine has emphasised the importance of business, academia and government working together for the public good. Last April, Oxford University announced it was partnering with British pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca to develop and distribute a vaccine. In December, it received regulatory approval, following those developed by Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech. In January, 82-year-old Brian Pinker became the first person in the world to be injected with the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab. The UK government ordered 100 million doses while it was still in development, effectively subsidising the work.

Unlike the taxpayers’ money spent on outsourcing less successful delivery of pandemic response efforts to private companies, such as contact tracing, this public investment in business has been key to the success of the vaccine drive. According to Airfinity, a life sciences analytics firm, the UK and US spent approximately seven times more per capita in advance on development of Covid-19 vaccines, procurement and production than the European Union.

The world is much changed since the WHO’s declaration a year ago, and with it, healthcare – from vaccine development to the tech transformation of pandemic-era health services. This past year has been a reminder of how the private and public sector can work together in the public interest, investing taxpayers’ money responsibly. This month, the Public Accounts Committee slammed the “unimaginable” cost of NHS Test and Trace, with consultants being paid £1,000 a day. The race for the vaccine shows that government can spend more wisely

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This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on healthcare. You can download the full edition here.