Much can still go wrong, and these successes have yet to prevent the spread of the virus. Others are now catching up, and in some cases are ahead. Britain has played little part in some big recent bioscience breakthroughs, including gene editing and messenger-RNAvaccines.
But the government cannot be faulted for its ambition in bioscience. In September it launched a new Genomics UK strategy, with a plan to use this pandemic’s demonstration of what we can do well in bioscience to apply the knowledge in treating patients, as well as to attract biotech innovators to the UK. The strategy aims to begin delivering the long-promised goal of personalised treatments, as well as predicting individuals’ risks of chronic diseases.
There is an interesting wrinkle here. For decades Britain has been unable to solve the problem that it is better at discovering things than applying them. More Nobel prizes than any other country bar America but no Google, Sony or Siemens to show for it. But in bioscience the gap between discovery and application is smaller here than elsewhere, and we have just shown we can leap it with elan. Most genomic data sets in the world are entirely research based. Ours are better coupled to clinical care. If the next 50 years is going to be dominated by innovation in biotech as the last 50 were dominated by IT, then Britain is well placed.
If there were league tables of culture, Britain would be mid table at best when it comes to philosophy, music, literature, art, physics and chemistry. But it is the Man U or Liverpool of biology and always has been: the circulation of the blood, evolution by natural selection, the structure of DNA, genome sequencing, in-vitro fertilisation, DNA fingerprinting, cloning: the list is extraordinary for a country with 1 per cent of the world’s population. Go Bio-Britain.