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TV review: Race Against the Virus: The hunt for a vaccine, Surviving the Virus: My brother and me, and Squeamish About. . .

14 August 2020

BBC/Little Gem

Dr Xand van Tulleken, who works in a care home where he contracted the virus, was one of the identical twin brothers, both doctors, featured in Surviving the Virus: My brother and me (BBC1, Wednesday of last week)

Dr Xand van Tulleken, who works in a care home where he contracted the virus, was one of the identical twin brothers, both doctors, featured in ...

WHY was no one prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic? Race Against the Virus: The hunt for a vaccine (Channel 4, Monday of last week) proved this question to be utterly wrong-headed. Atthe top medical scientific level, they have been waiting for it for years — expecting it, even predicting its probable characteristics. The tragedy is that they could not persuade governments and politicians to translate their conviction into policy and practical preparation: nationwide testing and isolation schemes win few votes.

This was impressive television, demonstrating the degree of international co-operation on the front line of research. Here (all privately rather than officially, proving the scientists’ utter personal commitment to their craft), papers and articles are eagerly shared, and news scoured to look for hints of “Disease X”: the next virus to assail humankind, whose exponential population growth, hyper-large conurbations, and global travel make us prey to the spread of a new disease with a thoroughness and speed never known in previous history.

It was a grim parable of two parallel connectednesses: the global village that makes the international human family a single mass, instantly vulnerable as never before, and the scientific and technological network, sharing information, theories, insight, the extraordinary power of supercomputing, etc.

They co-operated to crack the virus’s genetic code; and, once worked out, it was shared online around the world. We heard from scientists in Pittsburgh, Sydney, Oxford, Dublin, Cambridge, Perth, and, indeed, Wuhan itself, where the key doctor (already part of the network) immediately shared his first sightings of the disease.

Theoretical scientists have, as never before, turned to the practical hunt for a vaccine; we saw in action their fierce determination to find a cure, turning medical research centres into 24-hour, seven-day-a-week manufacturing laboratories, and telescoping procedures to develop and produce new drugs.

Surviving the Virus: My brother and me (BBC1, Wednesday of last week) told the story from a different perspective. Chris and Xand van Tulleken are both doctors, in very different branches of medicine. Both volunteer for the front line in the pandemic. One immerses himself in University College Hospital, entirely transformed to combat Covid-19; the other works in a care home where half the residents have died — and then catches it himself.

The programme focused more on the emotional and psychological effect of the disease than the purely medical aspect: the toll on patients’ families, and the helplessness of doctors treating something so unknown and so wide-ranging as it attacks every organ and system.

For relief, try Squeamish About. . . (BBC2, Thursday of last week, first of four). Matt Berry’s alter ego, Michael Squeamish, supposedly examining aspects of British culture, decisively sends up celebrity documentaries. Every “fact” is wrong, every opinion is misplaced, and every film clip misunderstands the supposed subject. Occasionally very funny, it is consistently surreal and monumentally weird, transporting us to a parallel universe, bracingly confused and confusing.

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