Sir Jeremy Farrar Quits SAGE Amid Warning of 'Concerning' Virus Levels

Geraldine Scott & Laura Parnaby

November 03, 2021

A scientist who was one of the Government's leading advisers on coronavirus has quit as he warned levels of coronavirus transmission across the country were "concerning".

Sir Jeremy Farrar

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, left the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) at the end of October, he confirmed in a statement.

He said that SAGE had provided scientific advice to the Government often under "huge pressure".

But Labour said the move was a "serious blow that reveals the level of concern about the Government's mishandling of the pandemic".

In September, Sir Jeremy told Medscape's Editor-in-Chief, Dr Eric Topol: "Seeing the end of the pandemic is premature. We need a different mindset and that will come with a different way of thinking, and I hope would include a different way of investing in the critical interventions that we need."

Plan B

Sky News reported that Sir Jeremy was pushing for a "vaccine plus" system whereby mask-wearing, ventilation, and continued coronavirus testing would help to get the country through the winter as coronavirus cases remain high.

However, the Government has so far rejected calls to take further steps – its so-called Plan B for England.

A Government spokesperson said the data does not yet show that Plan B is necessary and that ministers are continuing to be guided by scientific and medical experts.

While a Government Office for Science spokesperson added: "We can confirm that Sir Jeremy has stood down from the COVID SAGE activation, and thank him for his contribution from the very start of the activation.

"SAGE continues to provide Government with independent expert scientific and technical advice."

In a statement, Sir Jeremy stressed that he was stepping down to focus on his work at health research foundation the Wellcome Trust.

But he said: "The COVID-19 crisis is a long way from over, with the global situation deeply troubling.

"The high levels of transmission seen in the UK remain concerning, but I stepped down as a participant of SAGE knowing ministers had been provided with most of the key science advice needed over the winter months.

"Throughout this crisis SAGE has provided vital evidence, and independent, expert, transparent advice to support the UK response, often under huge pressure.

"It has been an honour to have joined the hundreds of scientists who have contributed, and I thank Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty for outstanding leadership. I remain, as always, available where I may offer help as a clinical scientist or as director of Wellcome."

'Heavyweight'

Labour's shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said his resignation was a "serious blow".

He said: "To lose a heavyweight figure like Sir Jeremy from SAGE is a serious blow that reveals the level of concern about the Government's mishandling of the pandemic.

"While complacent ministers bury their heads in the sand, the vaccination programme continues to stutter and stall, and their failure to fix sick pay or provide ventilation support is allowing the virus to spread."

It comes as the Government said a further 293 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, although the total includes data from NHS England which was not provided in time for Monday's figures.

Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have been 166,000 deaths registered in the UK where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

As of 9am on Tuesday, there had been a further 33,865 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the UK, the Government said.

Official figures showed the proportion of children out of school for COVID 19-related reasons in England rose in the week before half-term.

The Department for Education estimates 3.2% of all pupils – around 248,000 children – did not attend class for COVID-related reasons on October 21, up from 2.6% (approximately 209,000 children) on October 14.

Among pupils absent for COVID-19 reasons, the main reason for absence was a confirmed case of coronavirus, with around 127,000 pupils off for this reason, compared to around 111,000 a week before.

Overall, some 88.2% of students were in class on October 21, which is down from 90% on October 14.

Cricket-loving Scientist

Sir Jeremy is a Singapore-born scientist who dedicated his career to researching and improving public health.

He lived in Cyprus, New Zealand, and Libya during his childhood before moving to the UK as a teenager, according to the Wellcome Trust, where he now serves as director.

He earned a degree in immunology and medicine from University College London (UCL) and a doctorate in neuroimmunology from the University of Oxford before training as a doctor.

Sir Jeremy led the Clinical Research Unit at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for 18 years, where he was on the front line battling potential human pandemics including Sars.

In 2004, the scientist identified the re-emergence of deadly bird flu in humans, alongside his Vietnamese colleague Tran Tinh Hien, according to a 2014 Financial Times interview with the doctor.

He joined the Wellcome Trust medical foundation as director in 2013.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Sir Jeremy served as a member of SAGE, the UK Vaccine Taskforce and the ACT-Accelerator, which is a global effort co-ordinated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to accelerate the development of vaccines and tests and ensure equitable distribution.

According to the Wellcome website, Sir Jeremy has argued that everyone, including those in less developed countries, should benefit equally from scientific advances in the fight against coronavirus.

An internationally recognised figure, the scientist was named 12th in the Fortune list of the greatest global leaders in 2015, and he is also a fellow of several leading medical bodies including the Royal Society and the European Molecular Biology Organisation.

In 2019, Sir Jeremy was knighted for services to global health.

He lives in Oxford with his wife, children and two dogs Coco and Sep-Y, and is passionate about cricket, including as a player for Steeple Aston Cricket Club, Wellcome has said.

This article contains information from PA Media.

Image credits: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

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