Going viral: How Covid changed science forever

In 2021 Jonathan Van-Tam took a deep dive into viruses and revealed why biological science will never be the same again.

Jonathan Van-Tam with his arms crossed in front of an aerial view of a city at night with bright lights

In the 2021 CHRISTMAS LECTURES from the Royal Institution, Jonathan Van-Tam was joined by expert British scientists who all played vital roles in the Covid-19 pandemic, to reveal how new discoveries are set to change the future of medicine. 

With millions of lives at stake and no treatments or vaccines to hand, these scientists fell back on tried and tested principles of contact tracing and isolation. Alongside this, they accelerated their research to achieve the impossible. They raced to understand the virus’s biology, to find treatments and create vaccines that could bring the pandemic under control. And they succeeded. Within 11 months the first vaccine was produced – a process that often takes 10 years.

Jonathan showed how public health measures, combined with ground-breaking science will have an impact far beyond Covid-19. He was joined by six Guest Lecturers, cellular immunologist Katie Ewer, mathematical biologist Julia Gog, clinical microbiologist Ravi Gupta, pharmacologist Tess Lambe, chartered mechanical engineer Cath Noakes, and microbiologist Sharon Peacock.

Together they demonstrated biomedical breakthroughs that could help fight other infectious diseases, genetic disorders and even cancer. From advances in early detection techniques – lateral flow tests, blood tests and wearable tech which can detect illnesses before symptoms are even noticeable – to rapid genome sequencing that could be used to speed up cancer diagnosis or assess organ donor compatibility, to the world’s first mRNA vaccines which could be used to treat malaria and HIV.

Data has been shared across the world and rapid clinical trials have tested the efficacy of new drugs. Biological and epidemiological science will never be the same again.

The lectures were broadcast on BBC Four at 8pm on 28, 29 and 30 December.