Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 in Retrospect

 I was tempted to post a two word review of the year 2020 consisting of the words "Expletive deleted."

But although this would be tempting is it not absolutely fair.

Yes, the Coronavirus spoiled so many things about this year, but it also showed many aspects of humanity at their best.

Heroes like those who kept the NHS going.

Heroes like Sir Tom Moore and many others who did their bit to support NHS charities and others in need.

It is a marvellous achievement to have two vaccines ready and approved after detailed and rigorous clinical trials, to deal with a disease which none of us had even heard of a year ago.

After four and a half years of arguing about Brexit, we have finally managed to implement what the British people voted for - we left the EU earlier in the year, and although it was a even more last minute than I expected, (I always predicted we would get a deal, though we came a bit closer to not doing so than I anticipated) we finish the transition period at 11pm with a deal which preserves tariff-free access to European markets.

It was the year of the volunteer

Record numbers of people responded to the sudden crisis in their local communities: from preparing, serving or delivering food to the vulnerable to keeping an eye on them, from taking part in clinical trials for new drugs or vaccines to driving people to hospital, from contact tracing to providing social and psychological support, people have volunteered to help in their tens of thousands, as individuals or through collective organisations such as faith groups or charitable and social organisations.

People have been stepping up to the plate all around the world.

According to the Red Cross and Red Crescent, 78,000 new volunteers signed up to help in the US; in Italy the figure was nearly 60,000. There were 48,000 people in the Netherlands and 35,000 in Kenya. In Tuvalu, a country with no recorded cases of Covid-19, the local Red Cross welcomed 130 new volunteers. 

“In response to unprecedented humanitarian need, we have witnessed equally unprecedented humanity and kindness,” said Francesco Rocca, the president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “Though the future can seem bleak and the world divided because of this virus, every individual action of solidarity, of peace, of lending a hand and supporting your community counts.”

Development of new types of vaccine shows scientific innovation at its best.

The traditional process of developing and approving new medical treatments usually takes the best part of a decade and sometimes longer - in fact I'm told the previous record for the quickest development of an approved vaccine with clinical trials and checks was four years. But in the face of a global crisis the world has shown that we can do better than that.

It is truly amazing that the development, large scale clinical testing, regulatory approval after peer-reviewed assessment of the evidence, the start of large-scale manufacture and the beginning of a process of mass inoculation for not one but two completely new types of vaccine, of a new type and against a previously unknown disease, has been completed in less than a year. This is an absolutely unprecedented achievement.

Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna designed a molecule called messenger RNA or mRNA which, injected into cells, instructs them to make the proteins usually found in the virus, stimulating an immune response from the body. Rollout has already started, and though vaccinating about 8 billion people will be a medical challenge unparalleled in human history, the breakthrough has certainly raised hopes that 2021 will be a better year than its predecessor.

Although the technology had been in development for some years, mRNA vaccines had never before been licensed for use in humans. One big advantage is that they can be made fast: it’s a chemical process, with no need to grow proteins or viruses. But this also needs a whole new technology that, suitably refined, could change forever how medicine fights not just COVID-19, indeed not just viruses, but also other forms of disease and perhaps even cancer. These are early days, but the leap forward looks very promising.

As Boris Johnson said in his New Year message, 2020 was “the year in which the Government was forced to tell people how to live their lives, how long to wash their hands, how many households could meet together. And a year in which we lost too many loved ones before their time.

“So I can imagine that there will be plenty of people who will be only too happy to say goodbye to the grimness of 2020. But just before we do, I want to remind you that this was also the year when we rediscovered a spirit of togetherness, of community.

“It was a year in which we banged saucepans to celebrate the courage and self-sacrifice of our NHS staff and care home workers. A year in which working people pulled the stops out to keep the country moving in the biggest crisis we have faced for generations:  shop-workers, transport staff, pharmacists, emergency services, everyone, you name it.

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