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Government puts research at heart of Covid-19 response

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND], via Flickr

UK coronavirus plan: ‘contain, delay, research, mitigate’

Contain, delay, research, mitigate. That is the four-stranded plan to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in the UK unveiled by the government on 3 March.

“The plan does not set out what the government will do,” said prime minister Boris Johnson, “it sets out the steps we could take at the right time along the basis of the scientific advice.”

According to the plan the country is still in the ‘contain and research’ phases.

The plan comes as the first UK higher education institution closed due to the virus. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama announced a teacher had been diagnosed with Covid-19 on 2 March.

The first known case of the virus in the UK was a student at York University who was diagnosed on 1 February.

Research priorities the plan lists include:

  • better understanding of the virus and actions that will lessen its effect on the UK
  • innovating responses such as diagnostics, drugs and vaccines
  • using evidence to inform the development of the most effective models of care

Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, said: “The measures outlined in the plan are based on the best available scientific evidence—and led by our world-leading infectious disease experts”.

The government is already liaising with major research organisation including the National Institute for Health Research, UK Research and Innovation, and the Wellcome Trust to support and coordinate research during the Covid-19 outbreak. It has pledged £40 million for Covid-19-related research and its public health agencies are supporting the rapid development of specific tests for this coronavirus.

“The intention is to gather evidence about effective interventions in order to inform decision-making going forward,” says the plan. “The UK government will keep emerging research needs under close review and progress research activities set out above.”

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said: “We are taking all possible steps to contain this virus and they will remain driven and grounded by science.”

“Research has been ongoing since we first identified Covid-19 and I pay tribute to scientists at Public Health England who were among the first in the world to sequence its genome,” Hancock told the parliament on 3 March.

“Research is not just about developing a vaccine, which we are actively pursuing, but which will be many months away at the earliest,” he added. “Research is also about understanding what actions will lessen the impact of coronavirus including what drugs and treatments—existing and new—will help those who are already sick.”

“The government plan sensibly lays out four steps: contain, delay, research and mitigate,” said Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. “We are fortunate to have Chris Whitty, [chief medical officer] England, who is highly respected by scientists, and who was clear and honest in laying out what we know, what we don’t know, and what steps will be taken in the coming days and weeks if necessary.”