AstraZeneca has become a political football. It's time we took the politics out of science and created a truly independent Office of Science, argues Sebastien Kurzel.

If you've been reading about AstraZeneca over the last few weeks, you may feel like you have been watching a car crash in slow motion. Or, perhaps more accurately, a tragicomedy. While it has been hilarious at times, it has also been painfully scary.

AstraZeneca's success in developing a vaccine in double-quick time has been undercut (just as quickly) by the rampant politicisation of the roll-out. The first hint of what was to come came when Macron called it "quasi-ineffective" among people older than 65 years old. Oxford University, AstraZeneca, the World Health Organisation, and the UK hit back.

Next came a flood of EU countries pausing the roll-out of the vaccine for fear of triggering blood clots. Again, international opprobrium followed. So, where do we stand today? It's not immediately clear to me. 

When I searched the news this morning, some publications were saying that there was a causal link between the vaccine and blood clots. Others were saying the opposite. Should we be worried, or has this whole fiasco been whipped up by a spiteful European Union who wanted to shoulder pain on a British-developed vaccine?

Whatever the reality, the damage has been done. Public confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine has almost hit rock bottom in some countries. In France, more than 6 in 10 people surveyed considered the shot unsafe, according to a study by YouGov.

Who's to blame? AstraZeneca is not blameless. The way they published scientific results has been questioned not only by the EU but the US too. They took too long to respond to some damaging allegations. And it's almost certainly true that they need to take some lessons in reputation management.

But it's also clear that half of the problem is that the public does not know who to trust. When questions are fired off by journalists about the safety of the vaccine, it is generally politicians who are answering the queries. Whether that's Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, or Joe Biden.

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Have any of these politicians gone out of their way to mislead? I simply don't know. But I do know that as soon as an answer comes out of the mouth of a politician it becomes political. Even if the politician is saying the exact same words as an independent scientist, it is impossible for listeners not to read politics and ulterior motives into their words.

The upshot is that politicians are very bad messengers for clear-cut factual information. In the public's mind, everything they say is layered with ulterior motives, vested interests, and political ideology. In fact, they might be the very worst messengers for factual information. 

But, more importantly, I have seen this public scepticism in our politicians' statements about science, and the vaccine particularly, leak out to wider public officials and scientific organisations.

Let's start with an easy example: UK vaccine tsar Kate Bingham. Over the last few months, there have been countless articles, Twitter comments, and much else besides dismissing her recommendations as political hogwash. The reason? Because she was appointed by Boris Johnson and married to Conservative MP Jesse Norman.

Her mere appointment by a politician opens the door to the accusation that she is simply toeing a political line; she is just doing the Government's work. The same is sadly true for all political appointees, whether it's the Government Office for Science (based in BEIS), the MHRA (part of the Department of Health), or otherwise. It is also true of the WHO which is full of political appointees but on an international, rather than national, basis.

If any of these people speak publically about the safety of the vaccine, it is much too easy for the public to start asking at the back of their minds: but are they just saying that to satisfy their ultimate government paymasters? What we need is a truly, fully, completely independent organisation whose goal is to communicate about public health and science, which cannot be accused of being tainted with government influence. An organisation whose word cannot be dismissed as 'government speak in disguise'.

How would this work in practice? The devil will be in the detail, but a starter for 10 might involve the committee being elected from within academia itself, with the Government having absolutely no say on who served on its Board or served within its executive team. 

Perhaps more importantly, the funding should not be contingent on Government approval or subject to the same Government oversight as other funding pots. There are a number of possible alternatives. For example, the new independent Office for Science might be gifted a £50 million endowment, which will generate revenue from investments in perpetuity for its funding, without the organisation ever needing to ask the Government for money again.

The technicalities need to be worked out, but it's clear that we desperately need an independent voice for science and public safety in this country. And this cannot be tainted with even a sliver of government intervention.

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