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Source: United Kingdom – Executive Government & Departments

The Government has published a list of members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

Dr Amitava Banerjee, Associate Professor in Clinical Data Science and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist, Institute of Health Informatics, UCL, said:

“It is highly welcome that the SAGE membership has been published.  There is entirely appropriate representation from senior public health leaders and experts of varied science disciplines, including representation from epidemiology and data science.  COVID-19 is not just an infectious disease; it is an unprecedented insult to health systems and societies worldwide far beyond infection.  Therefore it has perhaps changed the paradigm for the membership of such an advisory committee.  Given the rapidly changing nature of this epidemic and pandemic, perhaps further representation by frontline clinical academics, non-communicable disease clinical specialties and global health experts may be beneficial in order to plan for the wider system response which has been and will be required.”

Prof Derek Hill of UCL, an expert in medicine and medical device regulation, said:

“Given the importance of medical devices in dealing with COVID-19, from PPE to temperature sensors to ventilators – it does appear SAGE has a lack of expertise on medical devices and their regulatory context.  This is very relevant as it impacts the risk associated with implementing some aspects of SAGE advice, which should be captured in such advice.  Such experts are likely to have an engineering background, and are likely to have experience in industries well as academia.”

Prof Philip Bath, Stroke Association Professor of Stroke Medicine, Chair & Head Division of Clinical Neuroscience, NIHR Senior Investigator, University of Nottingham, said:

“It is very important to see who is involved in SAGE and its supporting Groups so that the public know who is involved, their expertise and whether they are representative of the population in respect of geography and protected characteristics.

“In respect of geography, and excluding people representing the various arms of Government and their advisors, SAGE and most of the groups seem mostly to come from London, Oxford and Cambridge; the COVID-19 Clinical Information Network and Environmental Working Group seem to be the exception.  I have been struck throughout the last 3-plus months how much of the COVID-19 activity has been so-centred on the golden triangle and do wonder why we do not draw on scientific and other expertise from the whole UK population of almost 67 million rather than just the 12 million in and around the South-East of England.

“As to subject matter it is difficult to know from the lists what most non-Government and advisors are representing.  Data science, psychology and statistics are apparent but this information is not apparent for most of the listed University members.  So, the lists could be expanded to include each person’s base specialty.  This information could also be given for those participants who have not given permission to be named.”

Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, said:

“Transparency around decision-making is important and so it is good to see the SAGE membership lists published.  However, it is now also inevitable that these individuals will now receive further pressures and attention by groups and individuals who have specific interests surrounding the pandemic.  This may include political lobbying, and criticisms and threats from those who hold anti-scientific viewpoints.  In reality, we owe SAGE members a huge amount of gratitude.”

Dr Doug Brown, Chief Executive of the British Society for Immunology said:

“The British Society for Immunology welcomes the move by the Government Office for Science to publish the names of participants of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) for COVID-19 and related sub-groups.  This openness helps transparency and gives the public and scientific community a greater confidence in the group.

“Identifying how the human immune system reacts to the SARS-CoV-2 virus is critical to our ability to control this pandemic.  Understanding how long infectiousness lasts, how our immune system reacts to the virus, whether immunity is generated post infection, and if so, by what mechanism and for how long, are just a sample of the key areas where specialist immunology knowledge and interpretation is critical.  This expert immunology input will only become more important as time goes on and new drug treatments and potential vaccines have to be built into the mix.

“As our recent joint report with the Academy of Medical Sciences1 laid out, immunology has the potential to provide the answers to many of the key unknowns, which will allow us to optimise our future response to COVID-19.  In the near future, we will benefit as a nation from having more specialist immunology knowledge within SAGE to interpret these findings in the context of the complexity of our immune systems. We look forward to working with Sir Patrick Vallance and others to make this possible.”

1 https://www.immunology.org/news/covid-19-immunology-review-what-we-know-and-priorities-for-research

(Please note the following comment was initially sent out on 25 April but Dr Cole says it still applies with today’s developments):

Dr Jennifer Cole, Biological Anthropologist, Royal Holloway, University of London, said:

“When people call for greater transparency of the SAGE system, they need to consider the potential negatives that could bring, as well as the positives.  SAGE is not – as it is being portrayed in some quarters – a clandestine secret society.  It is a confidential process that enables scientists from different disciplines to speak frankly, often in the face of great uncertainty, to discuss how findings from one field intersect with those from another, and how to work through compromises that may arise, and how best to communicate this to politicians who have to decide on what that evidence means for the decision they have to make.  The ability to do this ‘behind closed doors’ ensures that those scientists can do so with confidence that their every decision will not be criticised and that they will not be ‘blamed’ in retrospect for decisions whose outcomes would have been impossible to predict at the time based on the evidence available but seem ‘obvious’ with the benefit of hindsight.

“Opening up the process – and the scientists involved in it – risks putting those scientists and their families at the mercy of intense media scrutiny, which will put many off being willing to participate and thus risks the best minds being absent from discussions.  It may open them up to surveillance from hostile states who may seek to blackmail them or coerce them to influence the process.  It may see media witch-hunts for them to resign when decisions change and previous ones appear to be ‘wrong’, even if the change has actually been the result of additional evidence that was not available at the time.

“The public has to trust the government that those involved in the process are the best available, that they have been selected appropriately and that there are good reasons why the process is not entirely transparent.  It is worth pointing out that neither is it entirely secret – academic colleagues are often aware of who is involved in groups such as this and can advise and discuss appropriately.  Rather than being based on constructive criticism, complaints of secrecy often come from ‘experts’ who think they should have been involved.  Leaking lists of who has been present put those who were at risk, discourages them from being willing to take part in future and ultimately risks the best experts being available to advise government.

“As for Dominic Cummings being present, many scientists may not be familiar with policy decisions and how they are made – SAGE is not a fixed group, but flexible and adaptable depending on the expertise needed for the particular issue at hand.  Having a politician there to help explain how the evidence will be utilised, what decisions it will help to inform and also advise when an outcome scientists suggest may not be politically prudent or feasible can help to work through the best alternatives.  It should not be taken that he is seeking to influence the scientists, but rather to help them understand exactly what information government needs and how that can be best communicated to the policymakers.”

SAGE participant list: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/scientific-advisory-group-for-emergencies-sage-coronavirus-covid-19-response-membership

SAGE explainer: https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/scientific-advisory-group-for-emergencies-sage-coronavirus-covid-19-response

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:

www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/covid-19

Declared interests

Dr Amitava Banerjee: “I have no conflicts of interest.”

Prof Derek Hill: “No conflicts of interest.”

None others received.

MIL OSI United Kingdom