Sir John Bell: ‘Most people who have had the Covid vaccine are completely safe’

Sir John Bell, the Canadian immunologist, is a familiar sight to locals along the Thames near his home in Wallingford, just outside Oxford, where he and his wife can often be seen rowing in a two of torque.

During the pandemic, Bell’s voice has also become familiar to millions of radio listeners. As news broke that a viable Covid-19 vaccine was on the way, after successful trials by Pfizer and BioNTech, Bell was asked on BBC Radio 4 if the world would now return to normal. His answer was an emphatic “yes, yes, yes”. His words didn’t just lift spirits: they moved the markets.

As Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford and one of the original members of the Government Vaccine Task Force which had worked on the University of Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine with AstraZeneca, the lyrics of the 69-year-old man had weight. Last December, he confidently predicted that Omicron was ‘not the same disease we saw a year ago’ and that high Covid death rates in the UK were “now ancient history”.

Addressing the Observer in a restaurant on the main street of Oxford, sipping a cup of tea, Bell is still optimistic. “Vaccines have had a very powerful and long-lasting effect on death…most people who have received the vaccine are completely safe,” he says. “People who are dying now, since last July, are not vaccinated. It’s tragic,” he adds, while acknowledging that the frail elderly and immunocompromised people are also at greater risk.


Age 69

Family Married with three children.

Education Attended Ridley College in St Catharines, Ontario; studied medicine at the University of Alberta and graduated in 1975; Rhodes Scholar in Medicine at the University of Oxford; postgraduate training in London and Stanford University.

Last holidays “So long ago, I can’t remember. Heading to Canada this summer.

Best advice ever given
“If you believe in something, never give up.”

Biggest Career Mistake Trying to help modernize Oxford University by serving on its council.

Word(s) he abuses “Tremendous.”

how he relaxes Rowing or sculling on the Thames, swimming in the university swimming pool, hiking and cycling.

For for this reason, he says, it would be a good idea to give more booster shots in the fall to people over 65 and those with weakened immune systems, while young people, children and adolescents healthy people don’t really need it – unless a more serious Covid variant appears.

“Two things can happen: one is that the vaccines really last a year or 18 months against death, or you get a much more pathogenic variant, in which case you need another one. [vaccine],” he says. He sees a “very high” chance that if a new variant emerges it will be relatively mild like Omicron, while the chances of a more deadly variant are “very low but not zero.”

The main challenge now is to find a shot that stops transmission of the virus, but Bell is optimistic about the second generation of Covid vaccines, which should be on the market within one to two years. Nasal spray could stop transmissionhe and other scientists hope, while vaccines that use T cells to kill infected cells may offer longer-lasting immunity than current stings and may also be more effective at fighting viral mutations.

Although the global supply of vaccines is abundant, they remain very unevenly distributed and many people in the poorest countries have still not received a single dose. Bell is proud of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, of which nearly 3 billion doses have been sold in 180 countries, and at non-profit prices until the end of last year. However, despite being billed as a “vaccine for the world”, it was to at the center of a political controversy a year ago, with accusations of efficacy, supply and side effects.

Bell says ‘uninformed’ comments made by politicians such as French President Emmanuel Macron cost many lives at the time because people were worried about the safety of taking the hit, especially in Africa . Macron’s comments were publicized by social media, a “third-party-provoked” campaign designed to cause disruption, he says. “Imagine if you live in [former] French West Africa and the President of France say: “don’t use this vaccine”. Imagine what you think if you are the guy on the street. Vaccination hesitancy in Africa has been driven by misinformed bad press, and the problem is that no one is responsible for it.

Although the AstraZeneca vaccine has not been approved in the United States, Bell believes it will continue to be used around the world as a booster, and studies have shown it to be particularly effective in boosting manufactured Covid vaccines in China, Africa, South America. and some Asian countries.

Bell, who has dual nationality, kept his Canadian accent. He drives a Tesla, but is considered quite down-to-earth by his colleagues. His former director of Ridley College described him as very humble for a man who served several prime ministers as one of the UK’s top epidemiologists.

He was born into a family of scientists – his mother taught pharmacy at university while his father was a professor of hematology and his grandfather a professor of anesthesia. Bell studied medicine in Canada and at Oxford, before becoming a regius professor in the field (a chair originally sponsored by King Henry VIII), founding three biotech companies and advising the British government on its life sciences strategy. life. He misses laboratory research, he says, but “you can’t do everything.”

Named Britain’s champion in life sciences in 2011, Bell has advised the government on how to boost the industry, which is second in size to the United States. According to figures from the BioIndustry Association (BIA), £4.5bn of investment went into UK biotech last year, 16 times more than in 2012. “Now that we’ve done Brexit , for better or worse, that’s the only thing we have to do: be successful in terms of growing exciting new businesses with exciting scientific discoveries that we’ll then sell to the world.

Bell chairs Immunocore, whose treatments use the body’s immune system to kill cancer. Its drugs are developed in Oxford, but it is listed on the US Nasdaq stock exchange, where valuations are higher. “We have a lot of start-up capital, but we don’t have growth capital,” says Bell. “The City of London with its big financial institutions, pension funds and insurance companies – they don’t invest in private companies.”

There is hope: the government wants to make it easier for pension plans to invest in illiquid assets to improve returns for savers, and start a consultation. If the rules are changed, he says, “I will be the first to dance in the street.

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