TRUE to the adage that free advice is often overpriced, Sir Jeremy Farrar’s advice to lock down the UK has proved to be cataclysmic for its finances. Office of National Statistics analysis shows an unprecedented drop in economic output as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), with government budget deficit spending running at a peacetime record of 15.1 per cent of GDP. The long-term cost to the UK economy of behavioural change and lost productivity, investment and educational opportunity is real but harder to account for.
The National Audit Office estimates that the UK government spent £376billion on its Covid-19 pandemic response measures. This figure is almost certainly an understatement as, for instance, large losses are still racking up on government-backed ‘Bounce Back Loans’. More recent analysis suggests that £500billion is a more accurate figure.
‘I do not doubt the seriousness of the epidemic, but I believe that history will look back on the measures taken to contain it [Covid] as a monument of collective hysteria and governmental folly,’ said Lord (Jonathan) Sumption, the retired UK Supreme Court justice in an October 2020 speech critical of the lockdowns and government by decree.
For Farrar, the lockdowns appear to have been a tool, first used to shake down governments into providing the Coalition for Epidemic Awareness (CEPI), the organisation he co-founded with Bill Gates, with the funds to implement its hegemonic biosecurity ‘War on Microbes’ business plan. Having been successful once, lockdowns became useful once again in the autumn to maintain governments’ commitment to rolling out the resulting Covid vaccines as they ‘were galloping down the final regulatory straight’.
Like the UK, France imposed an autumn lockdown. Farrar was advising President Macron too at this time. The UK government’s hesitancy to impose the October lockdown led, he says in his book Spike: The Virus vs The People – the Inside Story to his venting his frustration to a contact at the Joint Biosecurity Centre, in an effort to generate more support for it from within government. ‘It looked to me as if the (misguided) purpose of not instigating lockdown was to save the economy at the expense of lives and health,’ says Farrar.
What is now clear from piecing together the evidence is that Farrar was able to orchestrate a policy coup by distorting a key element of the UK government’s emergency response protocols, Sage, for his own purposes. Although it is not explicitly stated in his book, he appears to have inserted himself into the UK government’s Covid response by suggesting to Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Officer (CSO), that he should ask the Cabinet Secretary to activate Cobra and Sage and then volunteering himself as an adviser.
Farrar and Vallance had previously worked together. Prior to becoming CSO in 2018, Vallance was Senior Vice President at the Wellcome company Genome Research Limited, when Farrar was on its board. Dominic Cummings says Vallance approached him the day after lockdown (when Cummings was PM Boris Johnson’s adviser) about setting up a UK vaccine taskforce, of which Farrar also became a member. ‘I have got a text from Patrick Vallance, when he texted me directly on, I think, 24 March . . . where he says explicitly, ‘I want to set up a vaccine taskforce, and do it outside the Department of Health and Social Care,’ said Cummings.
As a research scientist, credited with identifying Nipah virus and involved in the Sars 2003 and bird flu 2004 outbreak responses, Farrar’s qualifications to serve as a Sage adviser are undisputed. It is his suitability due to his other interests that warrants closer examination.
Sage advisers serve, says Farrar, out of a sense of civic duty. They are unpaid and must declare any conflicts of interest. Although his interests are openly declared, his actions suggest he was furthering his own agenda and acting primarily in CEPI’s interests. Arguably two of his conflicting interests ought to have disqualified him from being a Sage adviser. As Director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the board of Temasek, the investment arm of Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, Farrar owes a legal duty of care to act in their best interests, one that overrides any patriotic duty he may suggest as his motivation.
Singapore began social distancing in February and imposed a stay-at-home order at the same time as the UK. As Dominic Cummings said in his testimony to a Parliamentary committee, Singapore’s Covid response measures were cited in arguments to overcome resistance in Whitehall to adopting similar measures.
The similarities in the Singaporean and UK responses end there. While the UK government donated $230million to CEPI in support of its Covid vaccine project for it to use as it saw fit, Temasek (to which Farrar acts as a presumably paid, nominally or otherwise, adviser) made strategic investments in biotechnology companies which were developing Covid vaccines. In June 2020, Temasek took a US$250million equity stake in BioNTech and will have shared in the vast profits reaped from its mRNA vaccine in partnership with Pfizer.
Temasek also made multiple investments in Clover Biopharmaceuticals, the Chinese developer of an as of yet unauthorised CEPI-sponsored Covid vaccine. CEPI has invested $360.5million in this vaccine in addition to $176million in grants and forgivable loans given to the US company Dynavax whose adjuvant is being used to boost the immune response it creates. Temasek was a ‘cornerstone’ investor in Clover Biopharmaceuticals Ltd (Cayman Islands) at its October 25 2021 International Public Offer (IPO). Aranda Investments Pte Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Temasek Holdings, was named in Clover’s IPO prospectus as a beneficial owner.
Temasek, whose Chief Executive from 2004 to 2021 was Ho Ching, the wife of Singapore’s President Lee Hsien Loong, has a reputation for being secretive about executive pay. The net value of the fund stands at a record high, increasing by S$75billion in 2021 and a further S$22billion in 2022.
Its investment decisions are guided by other well connected advisers including Timothy Geithner, former Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and former President of the New York Federal Reserve, who sits on the board of the influential think tank Council on Foreign Relations, and Lord (Mark) Sedwill, the former head of the UK Civil Service. Perhaps the most prominent name on their board of directors is Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank, a Deputy Secretary of State in the second George W Bush administration, and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Likewise, as the Director of the medical research foundation Wellcome Trust, the second largest philanthropic foundation in the world behind the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Farrar has a legal obligation to act in the Trust’s best interests.
Wellcome is funded by its investment holdings which include shares in Johnson & Johnson, a Covid vaccine manufacturer, and other companies whose profits soared during the pandemic including Microsoft, Alphabet (the company that owns Google) and Facebook. While the UK economy suffered a catastrophic downturn, the annual return for Wellcome’s investment fund for the year 2020/21 was a whopping 34.5 per cent, driven mostly by its private equity holdings.
As Director of the main company Wellcome, Farrar’s pay increased from £483,788 to £515,216 in 2021. The investment fund is a separate entity whose employees receive performance-related pay. The seven investment fund executives were each paid between £1.97million and £7.93million. It is not clear from the anonymised annual report if the investment committee of which Farrar is a member are incentivised.
Many Sage advisers receive grant funding from the Wellcome Trust, which is potentially problematic. Farrar says he was in the habit of sending ‘confidential updates’ to Wellcome colleagues, guiding them in his thinking.
Wellcome’s annual report shows that in 2021 Oxford University received £124.2million in funding from the trust, more than any other institution, part of which funded the AstraZeneca vaccine. The UK government contributed £38million in funding for this vaccine, 95.5 per cent of the total, with charities including the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust combining for a further £22.6million. Vallance negotiated the AstraZeneca deal before the vaccine taskforce was set up. Oxford earns royalties from this vaccine, but whether there are profit-sharing arrangements with the charities and the government is unknown. Wellcome has in the past refused to comment on whether it holds AstraZeneca shares.
As Dominic Cummings testified in Parliament, part of the persuasion used to get the government to invest in the vaccines was arguing that the UK would benefit economically.
‘What Bill Gates and people like that said to me and others at No 10 was, “You need to think of this much more like some of the classic programmes of the past – the Manhattan project in World War Two or the Apollo programme – and build it all in parallel.” In normal Government accounting terms, that is completely crazy, because if nothing works out you have spent literally billions building all these things up, and the end result is nothing – you get zero for it, it’s all waste,’ said Cummings. ‘What Bill Gates and people and Patrick Vallance and his team were saying was that the actual expected return on this is so high that even if it does turn out to be all wasted billions, it is still a good gamble in the end.’
On the facts, Singapore and the Wellcome Trust got the better end of the bargain. Farrar says the pathogens against which humanity is defenceless keep him awake at night. The collateral damage to the economy from the 2020 Covid response leaves many in the UK facing a bleak, cold and hungry winter. In his book, he deflects responsibility for his advice, saying ministers make the decisions. What ought to keep him awake at night is his conscience.