sCanadian immunologist John Bell 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 double sculls.
During the pandemic, Bell’s voice also became known to millions of radio listeners. When news broke that a viable Covid-19 vaccine was on the way, following 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 weren’t just good for the mind: they moved markets.
As a regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, and an early member of the government’s vaccine task force who had worked with AstraZeneca on Oxford University’s Covid-19 vaccine, the words of the 69-year-old weighty. Last December, he confidently predicted that Omicron “wasn’t the same disease we saw a year ago” and that high Covid death rates in the UK were “now history”.
Speaking with the Observer Bell is still merry in a restaurant on Oxford’s high street, sipping a cup of tea. “The vaccines have had a very potent and lasting effect on death… most of the people who have had the vaccine are completely safe,” he says. “People who are dying now, since last July, have not been vaccinated. That is tragic,” he adds, while acknowledging that frail elderly and immunocompromised people are also at greater risk.
Family Married with three children.
Course Went to 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 got
“If you believe in something, never give up.”
Biggest career mistake Trying to help modernize Oxford University by being on the council.
Word(s) he uses too much “Awesome.”
How he relaxes Rowing or rowing on the Thames, swimming in the university pool, walking and cycling.
for for that reason, he says, it would be wise to give more booster shots in the fall to people over 65 and those with poor immune systems, while healthy younger people, children and teens don’t really need them — unless a more severe Covid- virus variant emerges.
“Two things can happen: one is that the vaccines really last a year or 18 months against death, or we get a variant that is much more pathogenic, in which case we need another [vaccine],” he says. He sees a “very high” chance that if a new variant shows up, it will be relatively mild like Omicron, while the chance of a more deadly variant is “very low but not nothing.”
The biggest challenge right now is coming up with a shot that will stop the transmission of the virus, but Bell is optimistic about second-generation Covid vaccines, which are expected to hit the market within one to two years. A nasal spray could stop the transmission, he and other scientists hope, while vaccines that use T cells to kill infected cells could provide longer-lasting immunity than current shots and may also be better at fighting virus mutations.
Although there is an abundance of vaccines worldwide, they remain very unevenly distributed, and many people in poorer countries have still not received a single dose. Bell is proud of the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot, which has sold nearly 3 billion doses in 180 countries, and at non-profit prices until the end of last year. Despite being heralded as a “vaccine for the world,” it was at the center of political controversy a year ago, with allegations about its efficacy, supply and side effects.
Bell says the “uninformed” comments made by politicians such as French President Emmanuel Macron at the time cost many lives as people worried about the safety of taking the jab, particularly in Africa. Macron’s comments were incited by social media, a campaign “provoked by third parties” intended to cause disruption, he says. “Imagine that you are in [former] French West Africa and the President of France says ‘don’t use this vaccine’. Imagine what you’re thinking when you’re the man on the street. The vaccine hesitancy in Africa is caused by misinformed press, and the problem is that no one is responsible for it.”
Although the AstraZeneca injection is not approved in the US, Bell believes it will be used around 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 holds dual citizenship, has kept his Canadian accent. He drives a Tesla, but is experienced as quite sober by colleagues. His former headmaster at Ridley College has described him as very humbled by 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 the university, while his father was a professor of hematology and his grandfather a professor of anesthesia. Bell studied medicine in Canada and Oxford before eventually becoming a regius professor of the subject (a chair originally sponsored by King Henry VIII), founding three biotech companies and advising the British government on its life science strategy. He lacks lab research, he says, but “you can’t do everything.”
Bell was named UK Life Sciences Champion in 2011. According to figures from the BioIndustry Association (BIA), £4.5bn of investment in UK biotech was poured last year, a 16-fold increase from 2012. “Now that we’ve done Brexit, for better or for worse, it’s this is all we need to do: to make ourselves a success in terms of growing new, exciting companies with exciting science-based discoveries that we then go on to sell to the world.”
Bell is president of Immunocore, whose treatments use the body’s immune system to kill cancer. The drug is being developed in Oxford, but it is listed on the US Nasdaq stock exchange, where valuations are higher. “We have a lot of seed capital, but no growth capital,” Bell says. “The City of London with its major 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 schemes to invest in illiquid assets in order to improve returns for savers and is conducting a consultation. When the rules are changed, he says, “I’ll be the first to dance in the street.”