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A Christmas reflection and the many lives saved

This is not only a time for Christmas greetings but also a time to reflect on the lives that have been saved so far and the work still to be done. 
In the spirit of optimism, I will be raising a glass to our shared humanity and resourcefulness this Christmas day as I look forward to defeating the virus and hopefully a fairer new world in 2021. 
I hope you can join me in our virtual world. 


The TEFS review of 2020 is almost ready but is being held back for now. The events of 2020 have yet to play out and we still fear what 2021 might hold. 

In the meantime, here is a link to a free TEFS calendar to download.  It has pictures of TEFS postings throughout 2020. 

Thinking of others.

Please think of those finding things tough this Christmas through no fault of their own.  If you are able, please give to your local food bank or donate to:

The Marcus Rashford campaign End Child Food Poverty

As Christmas approaches, and we prepare for the New Year, it is hoped that everyone will be able to have a reasonable break despite the difficult circumstances. Tragically too many have left us this year earlier than expected. There must be few people who have not lost family or friends. 

Too many are struggling with their finances as homes and jobs are lost. More might have been done to stop evictions and ensure everyone has enough heat and food as a basic minimum. 

But now it is time to reflect on what has happened and what the future holds. There is still much to applaud as we come to terms with the impact of the pandemic. NHS staff, care home workers, keyworkers in transport and delivery, shop workers, teachers, lecturers and many more have found themselves in the front line. Volunteers at food banks have been working at full capacity as the crisis marches on, while most of us who could have donated to them. 

Less reported has been the incredibly long hours worked by scientists and laboratory staff in developing vaccines and in virus sequencing and infection testing. The full extent of the massive effort is hidden in the background for most people. 

Meanwhile students have attended university and, despite adverse publicity about their behaviour, most have tried to comply with the lockdowns. They now are almost all back in their homes and concerned that the inappropriate use of lateral flow antigen tests might not have worked reliably. 

Yet many lives have been saved. 

In the middle of all this, it seems the media have mostly concentrated on the infections, deaths, R numbers and now the fear of a new strain of coronavirus. The effectiveness of rapid antigen tests and the time to roll out the vaccines all cause concern. 

What is not reported is the very large number of lives that have been saved 

Early data in January from China indicated that we were dealing with a very stealthy virus likely to spread widely. We were slow to react in the UK and some dangerous ideas emerged in the meantime. 

By early March, before the UK lockdown was imposed, it seems the idea of ‘herd immunity’ was circulating in government. The aim of allowing most people to become infected at a rate that is manageable was gaining favour. This is what Boris Johnson ineptly called “squashing the sombrero” . But without a vaccine the consequences looked very bleak. 

To achieve ‘herd immunity’, we needed around 60% of the population to get the disease. That meant deliberately setting this target to lower the chances of spread of infection to the rest. Then, everyone not already immune through infection can be vaccinated later at a lower cost. The hit to the economy would be lessened by spreading out ("squashing the sombrero") the rise in numbers of people off sick or in hospital. 

However, many more would not survive, and this target meant that around 390,000 people would die. To put this into perspective, TEFS noted (13th March 2020 ‘Government warning: "Squashing the sombrero" will damage your health’) that even in the deadliest conflict in world history, World War II, the UK didn’t suffer such high attrition with 383,700 military personnel killed alongside 67,200 civilians. 

With the UK COVID-19 death rate well over 60,000 this month (not including other deaths above those expected at this time), there is a genuine fear of many more to come. 

But what we should not forget is that this represents an estimated 300,000 lives saved so far this year. 

Celebrating human ingenuity and endeavour. 

Simply put, we are the first humans in history to have begun to defeat a global pandemic through knowledge, technology, and informed avoidance actions. Indeed, we are the only species in the history of the earth that has achieved this feat. This is something we should reflect upon and celebrate as we look ahead. Past pandemics took lives while humans knew very little and could do even less to stop or even monitor their progress. 

Now we have science and technology to back our efforts. Advances in microbiology and molecular biology since 1945 have been possible in a world that has mostly avoided a major conflict. Rapid advances in understanding microbial diseases have been accompanied by massive leaps in the technology of genome sequencing and analysis. Our current capacity to track the coronavirus would not have been possible without these discoveries. Also, we should not forget the staggering amount of data being processed with computers that did not seem possible less than 40 years ago. 

Education underpins our success. 

It is right to look at how education across most countries has fed our ability to understand nature and to detect and control the advance of a pandemic. We should remember that our knowledge and understanding comes from a global effort that sees few boundaries. This means the sharing to knowledge through research meetings and publications that are freely available. Universities are at the hub of invention and discovery in most societies and their ability to teach alongside research is to be supported.  This is not something trivial or remote as it takes incredible dedication and hard work to achieve for all to benefit.

I will be raising a glass to our shared humanity and resourcefulness this Christmas day as I look forward to defeating the virus and hopefully a fairer new world in 2021. 

I hope you can join me in our virtual world. 

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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