Harry Burns: UK must rebuild chemicals industry to fight virus

The UK must rebuild its chemicals industry to prepare for the long fight against coronavirus – and the next pandemic on the horizon, one of Scotland’s leading public health experts has warned.

Professor Sir Harry Burns

Professor Sir Harry Burns, who served as chief medical officer for Scotland from 2005 to 2014, said the failure to quickly scale up the volume of coronavirus testing was primarily down to the lack of a domestic pharmaceutical supply chain and lab capacity.

By the end of last week, there were only around 20,000 tests for coronavirus taking place every day, against a UK government target of 100,000 by the end of this month. Ministers have blamed the difficulty in securing enough of the necessary chemical reagents amid a global spike in demand triggered by the crisis.

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In Germany, which is home to global pharmaceutical and chemical giants including Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim and BASF, as many as 100,000 tests are already being carried out every day, allowing coronavirus hotspots to be identified more quickly. The country has so far posted one of the lowest trajectories for the curve of virus deaths, with a toll on Friday of 2,373.

Italy, too, is testing on a much bigger scale than the UK, carrying out 50,000 tests per day. The Italian Prime Minister said this week that trying to combat the outbreak without mass testing was “coping with the situation in the dark”.

“We need to find ways of making sure that we know who may be an asymptomatic carrier of this, and the testing hasn’t been ramped up sufficiently,” Burns, a professor of global public health at Strathclyde University, told Scotland on Sunday.

“I never thought I would be in a position to say I was sympathetic to a Conservative government. They have a very difficult job to do, but I think they have come to the testing a bit late.

“We need to know who is an asymptomatic carrier and could be spreading it. And that’s why we need the testing. The more quickly we know who is carrying the bug and get them isolated, the more quickly we get it under control.”

Asked what the key factor limiting testing capacity in the UK is, Burns pointed to “the decline in the chemicals industry, which in the 50s and 60s, the 70s and 80s even, was an important part of the British economy.

“Germany was able to turn to its own producers to get this stuff. And yet the supply chain doesn’t seem to be there in Britain.”

He highlighted the closure of a major chemicals industry hub in Paisley, which saw hundreds of skilled chemicals jobs leave the area. “That whole area, which used to be a huge campus, was flattened and it’s now private housing.”

Germany also quickly enlisted a network of hundreds of private and university labs to carry out coronavirus testing, while a major push to do the same in the UK was only launched by Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the start of this month.

“The other side of the coin is that every single university in Britain that has a biology department or a biochemistry department, or a medical school, will have machines that can be turned to this,” said Burns.

“I know my own university is very open and has already proposed collaboration with local health authorities in helping them get testing going. So we need to get organised for testing.”

Burns added: “We’re going to have to rethink the industrial strategy anyway because a hell of a lot of jobs aren’t going to be there afterwards. One of the policies we have in Scotland is this idea of inclusive growth, and inclusive growth means local, locally developed industries where there is local ownership and the money stays local.

“We’re going to have to build up our capability in a whole load of these areas, and not just assume that China or wherever can supply us. Because if the aeroplanes aren’t flying, they can’t supply us.”