On 10 January, a new posting quietly slipped its way onto Virological.org – a British-run specialist academic chat site designed to alert the world’s virologists to new microbes.
Entitled “Novel 2019 coronavirus genome”, the message came from Professor Zhang Yongzhen, a leading Chinese expert who a week earlier had received a sample of a novel and alarming virus spreading in the city of Wuhan.
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Within 48 hours of receiving the swabs from a sick patient, Prof Zhang and his team at the Shanghai School of Public Health had decoded the near 30,000 letters that made up the genetic blueprint of the pathogen and posted a link on Virological.org. He wrote: “Please feel free to download, share, use and analyse this data.”
With these perfunctory words, the professor fired the starting pistol on humanity’s efforts to beat Covid-19 – an epochal, all-consuming race against a ravenning foe that has since claimed 1.5 million lives, more than 60,000 of them in the UK. It was a race which, on 10 January 2020, very few in Britain and beyond had any idea even existed beyond reports on the foreign pages of an outbreak of an occasionally fatal respiratory illness in central China.
A world of home schooling, international travel bans, toilet roll shortages and myriad Whatsapp groups dedicated to home baking would have still sounded like a work of dark satire based on an unthinkable future.
And yet scientists responded almost instantaneously. In Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, Professor Sarah Gilbert, who had dedicated her career to developing a technology which would allow the rapid development of a vaccine for an unknown virus, began work designing a jab hours after the genome was published. Moderna, the American pharmaceutical company, finished designing its vaccine by 13 January.
‘Mother nature had taken the pin out of the grenade’
One senior British virologist who saw the Virological.org post told i: “At the beginning of January a lot was still unclear about this virus. We knew we were dealing with a novel coronavirus and I think we all knew that it had the potential to be extremely serious. But pretty soon it was obvious to us that mother nature had taken the pin out of the grenade. The problem was that the rest of the world didn’t even know the grenade existed.”
It would take another 10 weeks for the microbial tsunami – begun in China with the biological pinprick of a bat virus making its fateful leap to a human host at some time in the latter stages of 2019 – to crash upon British shores with its fullest force. In Wuhan the first death attributed to coronavirus had come on 9 January and it was not until Valentine’s Day that the first fatality happened in Europe with a death in France.
In Britain, where the first official fatality was on 5 March, life continued behind a façade of routine even as the pandemic quietly picked up an unstoppable momentum.
And yet unease was felt even as ministers insisted any peril was distant.
Among those attending the Cheltenham Race Festival in the third week of March, one of a succession of mass gatherings that have become totemic of what may yet be found to have been a mystifying official complacency, was retired businessman Geoff Beadnell.
He said: “I remember queuing for the bar, it was packed, and a guy right in front of me was clearly unwell and sweating. I tried back away from him but you couldn’t.” Shortly afterwards Mr Beadnell marked his 71st birthday in a high-dependency ward with coronavirus, battling for his life.
On 23 March, a Government which had grappled publicly with its strategy to deal with what rapidly became known as Covid-19 ordered a juddering halt to normality, perhaps the greatest ever upheaval to the peacetime daily routine of Britons, which became known with equal rapidity as “lockdown”.
In a sobering televised address watched by significantly more people than tuned in for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”
Rejigging and recalibration
It was the firing of another starting pistol, this time on a rejigging and a recalibration of Britain’s quotidian habits with consequences and effects that will echo for years, if not decades to come.
As such, two parallel processes were under way – one fiendishly-difficult but binary challenge for global science to provide a functioning vaccine; the second, an equally challenging but far messier effort to curtail and reshape society’s rules and behaviours to survive what virologists had long referred to as “Disease X” – the deadly pathogen about which nothing is known until its unwelcome arrival.
The resulting story of 2020 is one of alien habits and experiences lived, counterintuitively, in the familiar surroundings and confines of homes against a backdrop of hope and expectation that the work started by Professor Zhang would pay off.
Work from home
From rules which left the grieving banned from even the comfort of an embrace at funerals for loved ones robbed of their lives by the coronavirus to the abrupt volte face which saw the proportion of Britons who mostly worked from home rise from five per to just under 50 per cent overnight, the essential shape of human interaction was radically transformed.
For many, the experience of life in a pandemic has been little other than a painful exchange of tangible pleasures for pale imitations. Havens from art galleries and theatres to football stadiums and pubs have been replaced by digital or domestic facsimiles from binge-watchable box sets to off-licence booze (supermarkets and corner shops reported a 41 per cent increase in sales of alcohol during lockdown from 23 March to 24 June; year-on-year viewing figures for video streaming rose by 71 per cent).
Of all the neologisms created by the pandemic, “social distancing” has been without doubt the most far-reaching, cutting a swathe through the body language of millions and causing a nation to conduct its business with a two-metre measuring stick bisecting every encounter.
When lockdown began, a London-based charity and think-tank called the Young Foundation began a fascinating project asking 100 people to keep weekly diaries of life between April and June.
It found that Britons were buoyed at the feeling of their communities coming together, as epitomised by the NHS clap (albeit an event which many pointed out was at risk of being a poor substitute for adequate pay and protection for carers). But as time went on, the physical absence of family and friends had profound effects.
One 60-year-old woman, a grandmother of ten, movingly described the challenges of isolation. She said: “I didn’t realise how important being touched is to me. Lack of physical contact is a really big thing for me, it’s really affected my mental health.
“I married at 16 years of age and had my first child at 17. I have four children and ten grandchildren so someone is always hugging me, kissing me or touching me. But since lockdown, nobody has touched me, except to hand me change whilst I’ve been out shopping.”
At the opposite end of a spectrum of pandemic life stretching from joblessness and rising rates of depression to a world where high-rise estates echoed to sound of applause for the NHS came a sense that the virus had offered an unprecedented opportunity to make life slow down.
The nation’s suburbs, the hackneyed dormitories of British life, reaped the benefits of homebound commuters while city centres withered and gasped as they were starved of the economic lifeblood of a daily influx of millions.
One struggling 29-year-old urbanite, used to the buzz of coffee shops and restaurants, wrote in her Young Foundation diary: “To me, the suburbs seemed boring, quiet, far-away. Now they’re the hubs of activity and community spirit, and the city centre is lifeless.
“I sit in one of the two rooms in our tiny flat, scrolling through pictures of people lounging in their gardens, going on long walks in the countryside, pouring another G&T as they bake banana bread in their big kitchens, and feel so stuck and alone and jealous.”
Concept of time
Indeed, as more than half the nation habituated itself to the idea of a 30-second commute work in its slippers, the very concept of time itself has become slippery.
Felix Ringel, assistant professor of anthropology at Durham University, has argued that one little-noticed effect of the pandemic is its warping effect on people’s sense of “temporal agency” – the ability to structure and manipulate our sense of time. As a result, Britons have had to inhabit multiple versions of “corona time” – that of lockdown, of self-isolation, of home schooling and of family Zoom meetings, to name but a few.
It is according to Professor Ringel, who describes himself as an anthropologist of time, a valuable lesson in how to combat the “just in time” model of living with little forward planning that dominated pre-pandemic life. He said: “Our experiences of corona time have given us a training in temporal thought and flexibility. Humanity will weather this crisis, but there are others ahead. Perhaps then, it will be comforting to know that we can, and must, trick time and plan for the future – even when we feel stuck in the present.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that within the all too human rhythms of 2020 – from the 23 March “Lockdown I” which history and a public inquiry may yet judge to have been lethally tardy, to the febrile release of a summer of crowded British beaches and desperate dashes along closing Continental travel corridors, to the accelerating perils of winter – Britons have sought simple pleasures.
According to the barometer of collective thinking that is Google, the third most searched “how to” question in the British Isles of 2020 (after enquires about fashioning face masks and hand sanitiser) was: “How to make bread?”
Should in 100 years from now a time capsule be uncovered containing the paraphernalia considered necessary for survival by the inhabitants 2020, Britons of the future may well scratch their heads as to why so many of their predecessors secreted small containers of fermenting flour “starter” in their fridges while pursuing an elusive dream of sourdough.
It would indeed seem that in times of emergency, Britons think of their stomachs. Alongside seeking information on the duration of lockdown and the outcome of the US presidential election, the most popular Google searches of these months included recipes for boeuf bourguignon and IKEA meatballs.
None of which can diminish the fact that the abiding sentiments of 2020 are about as far from comfort and frivolity as it is possible to be.
The grim statistical roll call of the last 12 months leaves the United Kingdom with 79,000 excess deaths, with ethnic minorities and those on lower incomes at higher risk of being killed by Covid. According to one cancer charity, there are 50,000 “missing” diagnoses this year – some of them lives that may yet be lost due to delayed treatment.
And so the figures that encapsulate coronavirus’ searingly corrosive effects go on – the backlog of Crown Court cases is expected to reach 200,000 by 2024; more than 500,000 households with children are claiming universal credit than were at the start of the pandemic; the percentage of younger adults (aged 16-39) suffering severe or moderate symptoms of depression has tripled to nearly a third of the total, and in the over 70s the rate has doubled; and a drop in school attendance, which at one point this month saw just 41 per cent of pupils in their classrooms in parts of Kent, will entrench privilege in the education system for years to come.
It is against the backdrop of these sorts of numbers and the scything toll of human grief and deprivation that lies behind them that the massed ranks of the world’s vaccinologists and virologists have experienced their own shift in the shape of “corona time”.
After her phone pinged with the arrival of Professor Zhang’s genome posting, Prof Gilbert and her team worked for 48 hours unbroken to design the modified chimpanzee virus which just 11 months later – an interval which hitherto would have been considered a mere blip in the traditionally lengthy process of vaccine development – would give the world the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab.
It was a process in which the Oxford team has had to overcome obstacles ranging from combatting misinformation that the first volunteer to receive the trial vaccine had died to hiring a private jet to prevent an international travel ban thwarting the arrival of a consignment of test jabs from Italy.
History will relate similar stories of the extraordinary endurance of other scientific teams around the world as the slog of vaccine development has been telescoped into a 330-day dance of ingenuity and diligence that has produced three functioning jabs to prevent Covid-19, with more to come, and innovations from therapies for the virus to new methods of producing the billions glass vials that will be needed for a global vaccination programme.
No-one will have begrudged Professor Gilbert when – after it was announced at the end of November that the molecule she perfected on Monday 13 January is up to 90 per cent effective in thwarting the virus’s attempts to sicken the human body – she said: “What I’d really like to do now is get some sleep.”
Just as war has long had a grimly catalysing effect on advances in science and technology, so has the battle in the viral trenches against coronavirus.
It may well be that the enduring legacy of Covid-19 is the manner of its apparent defeat using a new technology – known as messenger RNA – perfected by Turkish-born husband-and-wife team Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci.
The couple, who despite now being among Germany’s wealthiest individuals still live in a flat near their offices and cycle to work, and their company, BioNTech, designed the Pfizer vaccine now regarded as the frontrunner in the search for a tool to subjugate Covid-19. It is widely hoped that the same technology could now be used to snuff out future pandemics and treat existing diseases.
With a quarter of Britons judging that their lives have changed completely or a lot as a result of the pandemic, the virus decoded by Prof Zhang has of course left a profound mark on the world.
As the United Kingdom sees out 2020 having gifted the world knowledge of “B117”, the Covid variant whose rampage through London and the South East has led to renewed draconian restrictions and Britain’s name appearing on travel ban lists for dozens of countries, the need for a vaccine-equipped cavalry has become all the more urgent.
If and when vaccination programmes do their work, the pestilential tide of 2020 will perhaps roll back to reveal a changed world where office-based working is no longer entirely the norm, where people cycle more and where neighbours talk to each other.
But, as politicians of all stripes have become fond of pointing out in recent weeks, humanity’s Covid-19 marathon – more, as it turns out, an ultra-endurance run across uncharted territory – is not yet over.
On the day that the Oxford vaccine results were published a member of the development team came home to find someone had placed a magnum of sparkling wine on her doorstep. It perhaps tells something of the story of 2020 that the Covid rules mean she has not yet been able to gather enough people in one place to drink it.