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The British clinical trial which saved a million people from dying of Covid

The UK government wants the country to become the location of choice for medical researchers.

The UK wants to host many more clinical trials, as part of its plan to become a magnet for medical research from around the world. More medical research should mean more major medical breakthroughs, which are always a cause for celebration. New cures or new ways of relieving symptoms provide countless benefits not only to the people affected by the illness in question but also their loved ones and society at large. Healthy people can do more things that bring them pleasure. They can work harder. They use fewer resources such as hospital beds or unemployment benefits.

But of course getting those medical breakthroughs requires a great deal of trial and error… including on human subjects. Policymakers, scientists and societies are therefore always caught between two competing priorities when it comes to medical advances: maximising the number of potentially-lifesaving trials being tested on humans, while minimising the number of errors. But some people think that this calculation is currently tipped towards being overcautious. The result is that most clinical trials take a long time to set up (over a year on average) and cost a lot of money (about a billion pounds a pop).

Members of the British government and medical establishment spy an opportunity for the UK to pioneer a different way of doing things. There’s a few reasons why the UK is uniquely suited to the task. One is that it has a government that is particularly open to reducing regulation around this topic, because it sees it as a way to attract new investment into the country post-Brexit. Another is that it has the NHS. One of the most challenging parts of creating a clinical trial is finding enough suitable subjects. But a centralised public healthcare system that holds the most of the population’s medical records is much easier to scour for trial participants than the fragmented provider system found in most other countries.

The UK could access a host of benefits by becoming a clinical trial hub. If pharmaceutical companies set up shop in the UK, they’ll pay tax to the British government and hire locals to work for them. UK residents, including ones living with serious diseases, will get access to new treatments that could improve or save their lives. And medical knowledge will advance faster - which could help people all over the world, now and in the future.

There are potential downsides, too, of course. Less regulation could mean corners being cut and people getting hurt. Some people will argue that instead of making things easier for big pharmaceutical companies the government should be putting pressure on them to prioritise people over profit. And current clinical trial methodology has been criticised for not ensuring there's biological diversity amongst participants, which can mean new treatments have not been properly tested on or tailored to groups such as women and people of colour.

The UK has already had some successes with their approach to clinical trials. During the pandemic, it ran the RECOVERY trial which aimed to find treatments for patients who had been hospitalised with Covid-19. RECOVERY took just over a week to start working on its human subjects, who ended up totalling about 40,000 people. In a matter of months it discovered that a cheap steroid cut the risk of Covid death by up to a third. By March 2021 it was estimated that RECOVERY’s findings were responsible for saving the lives of a million people around the world.

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