Sir John Bell, the Canadian immunologist, is a familiar sight to locals along the stretch of the Thames near his home in Wallingford, just outside Oxford, where he and his wife can often be seen rowing in a double scull.
During the pandemic, Bell’s voice became familiar to millions of radio listeners too. As news broke that a viable Covid-19 vaccine was on its way, following successful trials by Pfizer and BioNTech, Bell was asked on BBC Radio 4 whether the world would now return to normal. His response was an emphatic “yes, yes, yes”. His words not only lifted spirits: they moved markets.
As regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, and an early member of the government’s vaccine taskforce who had worked on Oxford University’s Covid-19 vaccine with AstraZeneca, the 69-year-old’s words carried weight. Last December, he confidently predicted that Omicron was “not the same disease we were seeing a year ago” and that high Covid death rates in the UK were “now history”.
Speaking to the Observe in a restaurant on Oxford’s high street, sipping a cup of tea, Bell is still upbeat. “The vaccines have had a very powerful and lasting effect on death … most people who have had the vaccine are completely safe,” he says. “People dying now, since last July, are unvaccinated. That’s tragic,” he adds, while acknowledging that frail elderly people and the immunocompromised are also at greater risk.
Family Married with three children.
Education Attended Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario; studied medicine at the University of Alberta, graduating in 1975; Rhodes Scholar in medicine at Oxford University; postgraduate training in London and at Stanford University.
last holiday “So long ago I can’t remember. Off to Canada this summer.”
Best advice he’s been given
“If you believe in something, never give up.”
Biggest career mistake Trying to help modernize Oxford University by sitting on its council.
Word(s) he overuses “Terrific.”
How he relaxes Rowing or sculling on the Thames, swimming in the university pool, hiking and cycling.
For that reason, he says, it would be sensible to give more booster jabs in the autumn to people over 65 and those with poor immune systems, while healthy younger people, children and teenagers don’t really need them – unless a more severe Covid variant emerges.
“Two things could happen: one is that the vaccines genuinely last a year or 18 months against death, or we get a variant which is much more pathogenic, in which case we 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 lethal variant are “very low but not nothing”.
The main challenge now is to come up with a jab that stops transmission of the virus, but Bell is optimistic about the second generation of Covid vaccines, which are expected to be on the market within one to two years. A nasal spray could stop transmissionhe and other scientists hope, while vaccines that use T-cells to kill infected cells could offer longer-lasting immunity than current jabs and may also be better at fighting virus mutations.
While there is plentiful global supply of vaccines, they remain very unevenly distributed, and many people in poorer countries have still not had a single dose. Bell is proud of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, of which close to 3bn doses have been sold in 180 countries, and at not-for-profit pricing until late last year. However, despite being billed as a “vaccine for the world”, it was at the center of a political controversy a year ago, with accusations over efficacy, supply and side-effects.
Bell says the “uninformed” comments made by politicians such as the French president, Emmanuel Macron, cost many lives at the time because people worried about the safety of taking the jab, in particular in Africa. Macron’s comments were hyped up by social media, a campaign “provoked by third parties” designed to cause disruption, he says. “Imagine if you are living in [former] French West Africa and the president of France says: ‘don’t use this vaccine’. Imagine what you think if you’re the guy on the street. Vaccine hesitancy in Africa has been driven by uninformed bad press, and the problem is no one is accountable for it.”
While the AstraZeneca shot has not been approved in the US, Bell thinks it will continue to be used across the world as a booster jab, and studies have shown it to be particularly good at boosting Chinese-made Covid vaccines, in African, South American and some Asian countries.
Bell, who has dual citizenship, has kept his Canadian accent. He drives a Tesla, but is regarded as pretty down-to-earth by colleagues. His former headteacher at Ridley College has described him as very humble for a man who has 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 haemotology and his grandfather a professor of anaesthetics. Bell studied medicine in Canada and at Oxford, before eventually becoming a regius professor in the subject (a chair originally sponsored by King Henry VIII), setting up three biotech companies and advising the UK government on its life science strategy. He misses lab-based research, he says, but “you can’t do everything”.
Appointed UK life sciences champion in 2011, Bell has been advising the government on how to turbocharge the industry, which is second only to the US’s in size. According to figures from the BioIndustry Association (BIA), £4.5bn of investment poured into UK biotech last year, a 16-fold increase from 2012. “Now that we’ve done Brexit, for better or worse, this is the one thing we have to do: to make ourselves a success in terms of growing new, exciting companies with exciting science-based discoveries that we then go and 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 America’s Nasdaq exchange, where valuations are higher. “We have lots of startup capital but we’ve got no growth capital,” Bell says. “The City of London with its great financial institutions, pension funds and insurance companies – they do not invest in private companies.”
There is hope: the government wants to make it easier for pension schemes to invest in illiquid assets to improve returns for savers, and is running a consultation. If the rules are changed, he says, “I’ll be the first guy dancing in the street.”